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Oct. 21st, 2016

Dedalus 1966

Made For Those Times

I keep looking for a place to fit
Where I can speak my mind
I’ve been trying hard to find the people
That I won’t leave behind.

They say I got brains
But they ain’t doing me no good
I wish they could

Each time things start to happen again
I think I got something good going for myself
But what goes wrong.

Sometimes I feel very sad
Sometimes I feel very sad
(Can’t find nothing I can put my heart and soul into)
Sometimes I feel very sad
(Can’t find nothing I can put my heart and soul into)
I guess I just wasn’t made for these times.
(I Just Wasn’t Made for These Times – Brian Wilson & Tony Asher: 1966)

I went to my 50th high school reunion earlier this month, and despite all my initial reluctance and apprehensions about going, it wasn’t a disaster! In fact the get-together proved to be a great success on many levels.

Since graduating from St. Bernard High School in Playa del Rey, in 1966, I’ve been to most, if not all, of our class reunions. Of those six or 7 celebrations (I’m still not sure of the total number), my favorite was the 20th Reunion in 1986. By that time my classmates and I were 38 or 39 years old and in the full bloom of our personal and professional lives, with settled families, homes, and careers. We were old enough to appreciate our past and our connections with each other, and young enough to still want to drink, dance, and party. To amplify this festive mood our reunion was paired with one or two other high school reunions at the same Century Blvd. hotel. It was a crazy night with old teammates offering me drugs in the restroom, and being introduced to the second wives of various old friends. Reality returned the following morning when, glassy eyed and cotton-mouthed, my wife Kathy and I drove to St. Bernard for a nostalgic tour of the school. There we met up with Jim Riley and Greg Ryan, the two old high school buddies who had remained in touch throughout the years, and many other revelers from the night before. We spent some times walking through shadowy hallways that echoed of old memories, laughter, and heartbreak, and peeking into classrooms where we had once sat, talked, and pretended to learn. Oddly, at one point I found myself separated from my family and friends, standing alone with an old, high school girl friend, Joanne Miller.

Now the term “girl friend” requires some explanation here. Joanne was never my girlfriend in the romantic, high school sense. We were never officially “a couple”, or exclusively dating. She was a friend, who was a girl. Which, I will admit, was unusual in a “co-institutional” school, where boys and girls attended separate classes, and had segregated lunch periods. However, I will confess privately, that I always hoped the friendship would grow and evolve, because Joanne was definitely my first “crush”. I thought she was pretty, clever, and funny, but most of all, she was open and happy. But even though she never (as far as I know) “went steady” with anyone else in high school, she consistently turned me down for the traditional school dances, like homecoming and prom, and always went with someone else. About the only time we spent time together at a social school event was when we encountered each other in Disneyland, during Grad Nite of our graduation. Oddly enough, despite my inability to connect romantically with Joanne in high school, I established a friendly and comfortable relationship with her and all her family – especially her mother and father – for many years after. Although Joanne attended school in Washington State, we kept in touch by mail throughout college, and occasionally dated over the summers, but the relationship remained “friendly”. I reconnected with Joanne and her family after my discharge from the Air Force in 1971, when I began teaching U.S. History at our alma mater, where her younger sister, Dianne, attended as a junior. Soon after, however, she told me that she had met a USC dentistry student, Marty Suckiel, and was planning to marry him. I attended their wedding in 1972 (?) and reciprocated by inviting her and her parents to mine in 1975. We had not been in contact since, until that Sunday morning after the 20th Reunion.

Our private conversation began in a typical fashion between two old friends who hadn’t seen each other in 14 years. We talked about family, children, and careers, but then Joanne changed the tone of the talk. Drawing me aside and speaking in hushed whispers, she revealed that her husband Marty was in the car with the kids, and that he was very, very sick. Apparently doctors had diagnosed Marty with some terminal condition and his health was quickly deteriorating. I was stunned into disbelieving silence with this news. I didn’t know what to say or do as tears slowly fell from Joanne’s face. We were soon interrupted and separated with the arrival of other friends and acquaintances, and I haven’t seen or spoken with her since.

None of the subsequent reunions have matched, or even come close to the energy, excitement, and surprises of the 20th anniversary. Attendance fell off over the decades, and quality control over the venue and accommodations declined steadily. Even though I always took the precaution of going to these affairs accompanied by wingmen – Jim Riley and Greg Ryan, fellow 1966 grads – the reunions always ended with a residue of unfulfilled promise. Both Jim and Greg were so dissatisfied with the 30th Reunion that they were not inclined to attend another. I didn’t share their pessimism, because the 30th gave me the chance of reuniting and talking with another old friend, Kathleen Foley (Sigafoos), who filled me in on her life since college, and also had information about Joanne.

Kathleen was a high school acquaintance who, it turned out, attended UCLA with me for four years. It was there that our friendship really began, fueled I think by our common love of history. We dated once, but our relationship was really based on academics and intellectual compatibility, with the bonus of a common Catholic high school experience. Unusual for most UCLA students attending such a large university, Kathleen and I found our selves taking many of the same history classes together over the years. Seeing each other often, listening to great history professors, and talking over coffee, made for an evolving and comfortable friendship. In our junior or senior year, I also met the guy she would eventually marry, Jim Sigafoos. He was a tall, friendly and talkative fellow who, nonetheless, always seemed to be hovering and guarding Kathleen, keeping his suspicious eyes on my intentions. Kathleen and I graduated in 1970, but while she continued on in graduate school, eventually getting her secondary teaching credential, I joined the Air Force to avoid the Draft. A few years later it was a very pregnant Mrs. Sigafoos who told me that she was leaving her job as a history teacher at St. Bernard High School to have a baby, and recommended that I apply for the position. That proved to be the first step in my eventual career as a high school teacher, administrator, and eventual middle school principal.

At the 30th Reunion I was able to have a long and private conversation with Kathleen. There she filled me in on everything that had happened to her and Jim since 1972. She was also able to give me an update on Joanne, who did not attend. Although this conversation was the high point of the reunion for me, it wasn’t enough to motivate Jim or Greg in accompanying me to the 40th. Without a wingman, I had to beg my wife Kathy to accompany me to the reunion, and it proved a dismal affair for my wife and I, especially since neither Joanne nor Kathleen attended.

In September, as the date of the 50th Reunion approached, I started feeling more and more ambivalent about it. Oh, I was committed to going, and this time Jim Riley was coming along, but I started experiencing very mixed feelings about it. I found myself predicting a disappointing evening in which none of my expectations would be met and I would walk away feeling emptier than when I began. At the same time, I was flooded with a rising tide of old feelings and images of high school. Entering St. Bernard High School in 1962, at the age of 14, was a cathartic moment in my life – a rite of passage from one stage of life into another – and it left a permanent scar. Even at 69 years of age, I was beginning to feel an irrational fear that I would re-experience the feelings of a lonely, insecure freshman – a child among many, many strangers.

I have hundreds of images of high school, good and bad, but a few scenes always push forward in my mind:

  • Sitting in Mr. Potthoff’s freshman homeroom with 35 strangers on my first day of school, and riding my bike home, alone, every day after school.

  • Taking a school bus home every day during my sophomore year and meeting and befriending Albert Nocella.

  • Debriefing each morning with Albert, Lynn Reeff, and Allan Fields in homeroom of our junior year. Getting my drivers license and joining the soccer team with Albert.

  • Meeting my friends Wayne Wilson, Jim Riley, Greg Ryan, and Joanne Miller, at the start of our senior year, writing for the school newspaper, and winning a league championship in soccer.

I’ve always struggled at understanding my ambivalent feelings about high school, but it wasn’t until this latest reunion that I finally sat down to put them on paper and figure them out. When I think about my four years at Bernards, two words and two emotions always come to mind: solitude and searching, and misery and joy. Those words always described the whole experience for me. To survive as a freshman, I suppose I made solitude my temporary companion until a few real friends came along. In the meantime, I spent four years searching for a sense of belonging. It was while thinking of this sense of belonging that I recalled Maslow’s idea of a Hierarchy of Needs.

Maslow was a behavioral psychologist who believed that human development and maturity progressed along a continuum of Needs. If we satisfied our basic human needs of food, water, or even breathing, then we can mature and begin addressing the more social and interpersonal needs of love, belonging, and self-esteem. According to this theory, when these stages of development are achieved, then people will, ultimately, become self-actualized (which sounded a little like Nirvana, since I’ve never met a “self-actualized” person). Anyway, if I applied this hierarchy of development to myself, then the roller coaster ride of high school emotions actually made sense. Looking back, I can see my odyssey from a happy and secure 7th/8th grader, living in a loving and supportive home and family, to a struggling high school freshman, cluelessly searching for the ephemeral needs of Friendship, Belonging, and Self-Esteem. I found friends and comradeship in my sophomore year, and a sense of belonging on a soccer team in my junior year. I suppose Self-esteem was achieved in my senior year with a League Championship and becoming an editor on the school newspaper. I never thought of applying Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs to high school before, but they must have been in the back of our minds when, many years later, Kathy and I advised our own children about adapting to high school. You see, we stressed the importance of joining of a team, club, or organization as being equally vital to academic success, and I’m confident that their high school experiences proved positive ones because they both did so as freshmen. Anyway, I hope that they will look forward to their own class reunions without the reluctance or ambivalence I’ve sometimes felt. As to my own reunion on October 8th, I thought it was immensely successful.

On the afternoon of our Reunion, Jim Riley and I checked into the Belamar Hotel in El Segundo before walking down to the bar for Happy Hour. There we happened upon Lynn Reeff, Allan Fields, and Mike Skitt, high school classmates who we hadn’t seen in decades. The encounter was a great prelude to the official Reception, because it gave us so much uninterrupted time to reminisce, laugh, and bring ourselves up to date on news of the past years. The most shocking item was learning that a classmate, Mike McElroy, had died a year ago. A minute before Lynn shared this fact McElroy had been alive and present in my mind and memories. Mike had taken the time to read and respond to a blog essay I wrote about three years ago, in which he was mentioned. Mike’s response to my essay recapped the events of his own life since high school and he expressed hopes of a reunion. Now, suddenly, McElroy was gone – ripped away by the cold knowledge of Lynn’s news. It was an unsettling moment, and it foreshadowed, I thought, how most graduates of the Class of ’66 will react to news of a classmate’s death. Deceased friends will be forever young and alive in our minds and memories until the actual moment we learn otherwise, despite the time lag. Anyway, after an hour or so of this undisturbed time of reminiscences and laughter, our band of 5 old guys walked across Sepulveda Blvd. and joined the Reunion Reception at the Tin Roof Bistro.

I’m not sure what person or group was responsible for organizing this Reunion (although I suspect Bob Leamy, another UCLA grad, was in charge), but they did a masterful job. The main evening event was not over-planned or overly complicated, and it provided ample room for personal discretion and improvisation. There was enough room at the mixer in the Tin Roof Bistro to meet, talk and interact, with plenty of hearty appetizers being served, if one was hungry, and a no-host bar with beer and wine (although most people preferred water). More important, I thought, the schedule allowed an opportunity for a quiet escape, if an individual or couple wanted to leave early. Dinner was left to individual discretion. Depending on how events progressed, one could join a group at a reserved table, go elsewhere, or simply call it an evening. The only flaw in the free flowing, reception concept was that it gave insufficient time for lengthy or in depth conversation. The sad fact about being in a room of happy men and women you once knew in high school, is that there are simply too many people you wanted to see, talk with, and question, but never enough time to spend with someone, before someone else joins or interrupts. There were simply too many people and not enough time. Luckily, I was able to compensate for this weakness, by encountering Jim and Kathleen Sigafoos at the reception and inviting them to a separate, quiet dinner after.

Dinner conversation with Jim and Kathleen was the perfect bookend to an evening that began with a raucous Happy Hour session with 5 friends, continued with a whirlwind reception, pin balling from classmate to classmate, and ending at a quiet, outdoor table. For the first time that evening I was able to listen, question, and have in depth conversations about parents, children, careers, retirement, and plans. It was refreshing and satisfying, and it gave me the idea that if I wanted similar moments with other high school friends, I would have to take the time and make the effort to call, email, or arrange to meet them like I was doing with Kathleen and Jim. I’ve learned that reunions are imperfect devices for meaningful communication, but they can function as a connecting mechanism for future encounters. So, before ending the evening Kathleen and I promised to meet again when we could talk further. She even hinted of the possibility of inviting Joanne Miller and her husband to a dinner party for all of us. Now that would be a reunion!


Oct. 4th, 2016

Airman 1971

Maggie’s Farm

I ain’t gonna work
On Maggie’s Farm no more.
Well, I wake up in the morning
Fold my hands and pray for rain,
I got a head full of ideas
That are driving me insane.
It’s a shame the way
She makes me scrub the floor.
I ain’t gonna work
On Maggie’s Farm no more.
(Maggie’s Farm: Bob Dylan – 1965)

I went to see the movie Snowden a few weeks ago. I just didn’t feel like writing or working out on my 69th birthday, and Snowden was the only film that fit my time frame. I will admit that I was a bit apprehensive about seeing another Oliver Stone movie. While admittedly he has made some fine films (Platoon, Scarface, and Wall Street), he has also directed some wacky, politically disasters (JFK, Nixon, and W). I was worried that his latest effort was going to fit into this latter genre, and go off the deep end over the topic of government surveillance and covert military force. Instead I found the story remarkably restrained. The narrative was about a naively patriotic American youth who joins the CIA and NSA, and becomes increasingly disillusioned and alarmed about the government’s secret authority and how it uses covert force and surveillance to a fight a “war against terror”. Ultimately Stone’s protagonist leaks the information to the world media and is forced to flee the country as a traitor.

Strangely, for me, the central question of the movie wasn’t about Snowden’s actions: Was he a whistle-blowing hero or a traitor? Rather, I found myself indentifying with this young man who wanted to do “the right thing” after the shock of 9/11, and I was relieved to find that Stone (as opposed to some earlier movies) was allowing the viewers to reach their own conclusions. I found myself much more interested in Snowden’s original decision to join the CIA. You see, at one time, I too interviewed for a job at the Central Intelligence Agency of the United States.

In 1975, long before September 11, 2001, in the time when our Cold War with Russia and other Communist countries still ran hot, I applied for Foreign Service with the State Department of the United States. I was finishing up my Master’s Degree in Latin American Studies at UCLA and looking for a diplomatic career in the State Department. Unable to join the Peace Corps after my undergrad graduation in 1970 because of the Draft, I enlisted in the Air Force and served until my father’s death resulted in my discharge. After teaching U.S. History at St. Bernard High School for a year and a half, I returned to college in 1973, under the GI Bill. I had always dreamed of a career in the Foreign Service, living in exotic countries and cultures, speaking Spanish or Portuguese, and traveling throughout Mexico, Central and South America. Working in embassies and consulates seemed exciting and challenging, and my experiences in teaching and studies of education in Third World countries seemed complementary to this type of service. Even my pending marriage to Kathleen Greaney seemed to fit it with these plans. Kathy spoke Spanish, and taught high school English-as-a-Second Language, but more important she would make the perfect diplomatic wife. She was smart, beautiful, and charming – everything a successful diplomat needed. By the Spring of 1975 I had made contact with the State Department and all I had to do was score high enough on the Foreign Service Examination to proceed. I didn’t. After getting over the shock of not passing the first hurdle to Foreign Service, I went to Plan B, and applied to the CIA.

After taking some graduate seminars in American Counter-Insurgency and Third World Politics in Latin America, I knew enough about the CIA to understand that James Bond-espionage was only a small part of their service. The CIA was primarily concerned with the study and analysis of social, economic, political, and military intelligence and data of countries, and I naively believed that I had done much of this for two years as a graduate student at UCLA. I also knew that all foreign embassies, and most consulates, had assigned CIA officers. I thought I could still manage a career overseas, as well as spending some time near Washington D.C., by joining the CIA. All I had to do now was apply and successfully clear their interview process.

My first encounter with the CIA was in the blue-collar city of Hawthorne, a suburb of Los Angeles, just east of the International Airport. As usual in those waning days of the Vietnam War, the Federal Building was a massive, non-descript edifice. It could have been any regular office building except for the long, winding lines waiting for passport and visa permits, and veteran services. Of course there was nothing in the government letter I received, or the building directory, indicating that there was a CIA office. I was simply to report to a room in the building. There I met a tall, handsome, 40-ish looking man in a tailored suit. His huge, mahogany desk was situated in front of a massive eagle on the wall, brandishing swords and spears in its talons. He welcomed me and reviewed a file folder containing, I supposed, my application, as I sat answering his questions. He asked about my education, military experiences, and future goals. He seemed very satisfied with my responses and he expanded on my desires to travel and live in foreign countries. He also explained that he was the first stage of the screening process, and that I would soon be contacted by mail for a secondary, more in-depth interview by agency personnel. I left the meeting feeling very optimistic. I recall another scene in connection with this first encounter with the CIA, when I called Kathy to tell her about it. Looking back now, I see an element of foreshadowing in this conversation, because Kathy’s response to my enthusiasm was oddly cool and muted. She emotionlessly stated that she was glad that I was pleased with the outcome of this first meeting with the CIA.

The follow-up letter I received from the CIA was in an ordinary, white, business envelope. The generic federal stationary invited me to two separate interviews on the same date in two rooms in a swanky hotel in Marina del Rey. I was surprised at the plainness of the letter and the proximity of the meeting to my home. All of my previous interactions with federal agencies, beginning with my registration for the draft in 1966, were in clearly designated, but hard to find addresses and buildings. This was the first time a government entity seemed to be making an effort to be convenient. Needless to say, I was very intrigued, and a little intimidated.

I dressed in a coat and tie and knocked on a numbered hotel room door at the designated time. I was greeted by black face on a stocky body, wearing a white, rolled-up, long-sleeved, white shirt, with a loosened tie, inspecting me from behind a chain-locked door.
“Can I help you?” The gravelly-voiced man said.
“Uhh”, I stammered. “I have an interview here, I think”.
“Are you Antonio Delgado”, he asked?
“Yes, sir”, I replied, feeling as if I was back at Lackland Air Force Base, addressing my Training Instructor.
“Come in and have a seat”, he said, un-securing the chain lock and opening the door. “Don’t mind the room”, he added, “ housekeeping hasn’t had a chance to come in yet.” He pointed me to a chair across from a small, circular table, and then joined me at another chair. He never referred to a file or document while he spoke. Before questioning me, he explained that I was to meet another interviewer today who represented another arm of the agency. He was a field operative tasked with determining my suitability for that aspect of the agency – data gathering. That’s how he termed spying, “data-gathering”. He then invited me to answer some open-ended questions:
“Why did you want to join the agency? What are your unique qualifications for the job? How do your previous education and job experiences help in this one?”
As I was citing and expanding on my employment history, post-graduate studies, fluency in Spanish, and military experiences as an Information Specialist, he interrupted to redirect the conversation. He explained that “field data collection” was about cultivating and sustaining personal relationships. These relationships were intimate and authentic, but they were always directed by their usefulness to The Mission. The Mission was the defeat of the current and future enemies of the United States. I have to admit that this declaration took me aback, and before I had a chance to recover my balance, he asked me the crucial question:
“Could you establish and maintain a close personal relationship with a friend or relative in a foreign country to gain information that was useful to your country, even if it put the life of that friend or relative at risk?”

I don’t recall now exactly how I answered that question, but I sensed not well. All I remember is being so thrown off by this question. I think I tried hedging at first, until I realized that I couldn’t avoid the ethical dilemma it posed. So I answered truthfully. To an enemy yes, but I couldn’t ask, manipulate, or induce a friend, relative, or loved one, to commit what they might consider a criminal or traitorous act. I clearly answered the agent’s question incorrectly, because his demeanor quickly changed. His attitude up until that moment had been business-like and efficient, and suddenly he turned friendly and talkative. He volunteered that not all CIA personnel were meant to be field agents or data collectors. The main function of the agency was analysis, which required different skills. I knew that he was metaphorically showing me the door, and pointing at my only avenue of entry into his world of government service. He amiably explained that the next interviewer would discuss this aspect of the agency and my suitability for it.

There was a brief interval between interviews and I was sure that my first contact had spoken with the second. When he responded to my knock, the door was unchained, and he was personable and friendly. He was a tall, white guy, who also wore a long-sleeved, white shirt, but it was buttoned with a tie, and his room was completely made up. My encounter with him was casual and relaxed, more of a getting-to-know-you conversation than a job interview. He began by explaining that analysis was the visible side of the agency, involving the type of work done in doctoral programs at universities and at think tanks, like the Rand Corporation in Santa Monica. His questions centered on my academic experiences at UCLA and as a teacher at St. Bernard’s. By the time I finished talking, he simply sat back in his chair and smiled.
“You know”, he began, “listening to the way you describe teaching, you really seemed to enjoy it. You’re at the point in your life where that dimension has to be factored into your plans. What do you enjoy doing? It sounds to me like you found it in teaching.”
He never finished that thought by adding that I didn’t fit in with the CIA, but I heard the message loud and clear. And secretly, I was a little relieved.

That was my encounter with the CIA, and the end of my dreams of a career in the Foreign Service of the United States. When I told Kathy what had happened, she confessed that she was relieved. Recognizing my desire and longing for a career in the Foreign Service, she finally admitted that she had sublimated her dislike of a life in foreign countries where she would be separated from country, family, and friends. She expressed that she had fallen in love with me, agreed to marry me, and had been willing to support me in my chosen career – but she had still hoped (and prayed?) that something else might come up instead. It did. I woke up to the realities of the CIA, and by extension, the NSA. I was not CIA material. Even I realized that the second interviewer was right. I did enjoy teaching. Teaching was challenging, and mastery of this profession gave me purpose and satisfaction. The CIA needed an ethical manipulator or a think tank academician. I was suited for neither of those options. And yet, despite this new awareness, I was still dogged by a question. How had I failed the interview? I had never failed a face-to-face interview before. What had I done wrong? What had I said that made it so apparent to them? Why was I not a good fit with the CIA? I replayed my encounters with the two CIA agents over and over in my mind for months. The answer hit me a month later. The first agent had actually spelled it out at the outset, only I had missed the implication at the time. There is only one justification for what he was asking me to do as a field agent – WAR. A CIA agent has to believe that he is a soldier fighting a justifiable war against all current and future enemies of the State.

In the movie, Snowden, Stone shields his lead character by not allowing him to make an informed decision at the time of his recruitment. Instead, he creates a CIA father figure, a “silky apparatchik” played by Rhys Ifans who sees the value of recruiting this highly talented computer programmer, despite his reservations that Snowden will not be a good fit in the CIA. He seems to trust that Snowden’s naive patriotism, ambition, and eventual greed will overcome any questions or doubts about the morally ambiguous activities of the CIA and NSA. For me, this is the weakness in Stone’s tale, and although it is better than his more contrived films, it is still a preachy story of government over-reach, and its abuse of power and authority. At the same time, it does pose an important question to the viewer: what would you do in Snowden’s situation?

In my lifetime, the United States has been “at war” against Communism and Terrorism. Both enemies are more ideological than concrete, and yet the USA has sent American fighting soldiers to countries in Southeast Asia, Central America, and the Middle East because of it, and provided intelligence officers the legal cover for their covert and amoral actions. Soldiers will accomplish their missions, do their jobs, and protect their brothers-in-arms, even at the cost of their own lives. However, intelligence agents and analysts are asked to go beyond the confines of conventional warfare where only a trust and faith in a legal and perpetual state of war is their ethical refuge. An authorized war justifies almost any action – and the victors decide if it is patriotism or genocide.

There was a scene from Alan Sorkin’s popular television show, West Wing, that has stuck in my head for years. The episode was called “War Crimes”, and one of its stories concerned the United Nations wanting the President’s support for a permanent War Crimes Tribunal. The head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff was lobbying the President and Leo, the President’s Chief of Staff, to oppose the resolution. In the key scene Leo reminds the Air Force General that although America set up the Nuremburg and the Tokyo War Crimes Trials after WWII, the Cold War threat gave German rocket scientists and the activities of American intelligence services higher priority than the morality of their actions. At that point the General, who served as Leo’s commanding officer in Viet Nam, reminded him of a specific bombing mission in Thailand during the Vietnam War. Leo, as an Air Force Bomber pilot, believed it to be a military target, but the general reveals that the bombing of the dam was in fact a civilian target that resulted in the loss of 11 civilian casualties.
“Why did you tell me?” a stricken Leo asked the general.
“All wars are crimes,” responded the general.

I enlisted in the Air Force at a time of war. I took an oath to support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic, and to obey the orders of the president and his appointed officers. As a soldier, that oath meant that I was ready to follow orders, do my job, and support, protect, and defend my brothers-in-arms. More than anything else, it is this brotherhood that gets soldiers through a time of war. The war stops being about the big issues – fighting Facism, Communism, or Terrorism – and becomes as simple as trusting your mission and defending your brothers-in-arms. This is a fighting man’s code – faith that the mission is right, ethical, and justified, and trusting his officers in accomplishing it. Leo fulfilled his mission of bombing a civilian target with his commanding officer withholding critical information. The general believed he was justified in making this decision because the truth might have jeopardized the mission. At the same time, he was wise enough to acknowledge the moral ambiguity of war – all wars are crimes. And yet nations and governments believe they need to be fought.

I honestly don’t know how to answer the question I posed above. Luckily, I met two intelligence officers who did their jobs in screening out a young man who would not have been a good fit in the CIA. Over the years, I’ve met and gotten to know many men who did fit this type of government service. They are good and moral men who are serving their country in completion of its mission. Is Snowden a hero or traitor? I don’t know, but I disagree with Oliver Stone’s method of excusing him and blaming the cynical actions of the CIA father figure. Yes, Snowden’s actions brought to light the secret and covert actions of the NSA and CIA, but they may have jeopardized other American lives as well. Are we better off as a nation and a people for knowing the truth about the NSA’s actions? Did he betray his brothers-in-arms? I believe we all make decisions for which there are consequences. Snowden’s actions were a clear violation of his contract, his promises, and possibly, his sworn oath. These actions have consequences. I believe Snowden’s next steps will determine how he will be judged. Right now, I’ll wait.

Sep. 16th, 2016


A Guiding Beacon

They erected a beacon to guide their children
And their children’s children,
And the countless myriad
Who should inhabit the earth in other ages.
(Abraham Lincoln: Bloomington Speech – 1852)

On this first observance of Patriot Day
We remember and honor those who perished
In the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.
We will not forget the events of that terrible morning
Nor will we forget how Americans responded
In New York, at the Pentagon,
And in the skies over Pennsylvania
With heroism and selflessness;
With compassion and courage;
And with prayer and hope.
(Presidential Proclamation: George W. Bush – 2002)

I never thought I’d attend a 9/11 Memorial Concert. I usually ignore all the citywide events, and the concerts, memorials, and specials on TV and radio. I was stunned by the scenes and events of that day in September in 2001, and never felt the need to relive it. I was the principal of Van Nuys Middle School on the day the Twin Towers fell in New York, and the father of a family on that day when life in America changed forever. Nothing would ever be the same again. We would never participate in public events such as sports, entertainment, airplane travel, or large venue happenings in quite the same way. Our national lives changed in the way a personal life changes after the death of a very close friend or family member. Everything is different the next day, the next month, and the next year, until the difference becomes the norm and we don’t feel the strangeness anymore. So when I first received my brother Eddie’s invitation on Facebook to attend a performance of a Patriot Day Concert on September 11th, I smiled, thought it was nice, and put it out of my head. It wasn’t until he called a few weeks later to ask if I could help him with the event that I took it seriously. Eddie was assisting his wife, Tamsen, who was the concertmaster of the event, and needed family reinforcements, so I agreed to help. For me, the event was not about national sentiment, but rather, about family need and support.

I’ve heard and read how many Americans claim to remember everything that happened on September 11th, 2001. I don’t. The day was a kaleidoscope of events, emotions, and scenes. I only remember:

  • Kathy waking me up and saying there was something wrong happening on TV.

  • Hearing conflicting reports on the television newscast about a high-rise fire in the Twin Tower Building in New York, or of an airplane accident in that city.

  • Feeling annoyed and worried about the lack of factual information, and the seemingly wild speculations being offered by the announcers. The school year had just begun, and chaotic or panic inducing misinformation would be difficult to manage without well-established procedures and plans already in place.

  • Seeing smoke rising from one of the twin towers on TV and believing it was simply a high-rise fire.

  • Hearing the report that a plane had crashed into the Pentagon.

  • Seeing the tape of a second plane crashing into another tower.

  • Showering for work and wondering what was going on in New York and Washington D.C.

  • Driving to school and hearing that all airline flights were cancelled and airborne planes ordered to land.

  • Hearing the concern, anxiety, and fear in the voices of teachers and staff as they reported to work in the main office.

  • Standing out in front of the school where parents could see me, and where children could question me as they arrived at school: “Is there school today, Mr. Delgado? What’s happening, Mr. Delgado? Are we safe? Are we being attacked, Mr. Delgado?”

The clearest memory of that morning was when I greeted Stephen, a sandy-haired, 8th grader who was also a student-office worker in the Main Office.
“Are we going to have regular classes today, Mr. Delgado”, he asked? “My mom is really worried”.
“Yes,” I assured him, “we’re having regular classes today, Stephen. As the Main Office gets more information about what’s going on, we’ll pass it on to the teachers, who will discuss it with you.”
“Okay”, he said, relieved. “I’ll tell my mom everything is fine.”
About 5 minutes later, I saw Stephen’s mother approaching me on the sidewalk at a fast pace.
“I know you told Stephen that everything is fine,” she began, breathlessly, “but I’m still worried. I’m not sure this is the safest place to be right now. I think I should have him home with me today.” Stephen’s mother also happened to be the PTA president, so I knew her question and concerns mirrored that of other parents, and that her actions and opinions could have a ripple effect on the feelings and actions of other parents and families.
“Linda”, I began, in the calmest and most confident tone I could muster, “your son is in the safest place he could be right now. He is in a structured and secure location that he knows, surrounded by friends and teachers who know him, care for him, and will protect him. He’s safer here than being alone at home, watching TV, or calling his friends to find out if they are at school. Believe me, Linda, especially today, this is the best place for Stephen and all our children.” I managed to calm her down and convince her that day, and she decided to let Stephen remain in school. Many months later, on Graduation Day in June, she brought that conversation to my attention again and presented me with a gift. I thanked her, but added that I was only doing my job.

Eddie and Tamsen’s Patriot Day Concert began with a salute to the service providers of the nation, those “first-responders” whose dedication to duty and service we rely on so much. They were represented by members of the Monrovia fire, police, and emergency health providers, who, garbed in their respective uniforms, suits, and equipment, carried in a memorial wreath to honor their fallen brethren who had responded to the calls for help on that fateful day. Two original works by Dr. David Stern, a local composer, teacher, and musician, comprised the first part of the program before intermission. The first piece was called, Lincoln Speaks of Liberty: “All Men Are Created Equal”, followed by his most performed orchestral work, written in response to the attack on New York, called We Stand for Freedom: In Memoriam, September 11th, 2001.

Lincoln’s timeless words, as narrated by my brother Eddie (Eduardo) seemed to establish the theme of the concert:

“The Fathers of the Republic said to the whole world: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness’.
This was their majestic interpretation of the economy of the Universe.
This was their lofty, and wise, and noble understanding of the justice of the Creator to His creatures…
They erected a beacon to guide their children and their children’s children, and the countless myriad who should inhabit the earth in other ages…”

Eddie ended his narrative with this last admonishment from Lincoln:

“They established these great self-evident truths, so that when in the distant future some man, some faction, some interest, should set up the doctrine that none but rich men, or none but white men, were entitled to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, their posterity might look up again to the Declaration of Independence and take courage to renew the battle which their fathers began so that truth, and justice, and mercy, and all the humane and Christian virtues might not be extinguished from the land…”

Dr. Stern’s second orchestral piece redirected our attention to the 3000 American men and women who died on September 11.

The second part of the concert was more traditional in its selection of Dvorak’s New World Symphony 9, and it concluded with an uplifting rendition of Stars and Stripes Forever by John Phillip Sousa. Ending with a Sousa March was to be expected, but my curiosity over how Anton Dvorak’s symphony worked in conjunction with Stern’s early pieces prompted me to do a Wikipedia search when I got home. I learned that Dvorak wrote this popular symphony while director of the National Conservatory of Music of America in 1893, and that he was supposedly inspired by the hope and opportunities provided by America’s freedom and its  “wide open spaces”. The symphony became sufficiently representative of America that Neil Armstrong took a recording of the New World Symphony to the Moon during the Apollo 11 mission in 1969.

Eddie and Tamsen’s Patriot Day Concert was not what I expected. I had feared a militant music celebration, filled with rousing wartime appeals for patriotism and sacrifice. Instead, what I saw and heard was a salute to the best of American values, American ideals, and American service. The main message of the concert was encapsulated in Lincoln’s words, that Patriots Day renews our belief and faith that “truth, and justice, and mercy, and all the humane and Christian virtues might not be extinguished from the land”. These are our values, our beliefs, and the basis of our way of life.

In We Stand For Freedom, David Stern reminded us that the people who died on 9/11 were ordinary Americans doing their jobs, providing their services, and living their lives. The music didn’t portray them as heroic figures, but simply as men and women who were martyred because they represented a way of life whose values and beliefs another group saw as a threat to their own. Many Americans, in referring to these victims use the phrase, “lest we forget”. I always took that phrase as a call for “justice”, which for some people is code for vengeance. I suppose that’s why I avoided going to these concerts, believing they would be vehicles to stoke the flames of revenge. But, there was no hint of anger, or a desire for retaliation in Dr. Stern’s music, or in Dvorak’s symphony – just sounds of loss and sadness, ending with a flourish of American hope. Hope that the pain and trauma of this tragedy would eventually diminish to a bearable level so we could continue forward. As President George W. Bush expressed it in his original proclamation, “Americans have fought back against terror by choosing to overcome evil with good. By loving their neighbor, as they would like to be loved”.

Sep. 11th, 2016



When I think back
On all the crap I learned in high school,
It’s a wonder
I can think at all
And though my lack of education
Hasn’t hurt me none,
I can read the writing on the wall.

Kodachrome –
They give us those nice bright colors
They give us the greens of summer
Makes you think the world’s a sunny day.
I got a Nikon camera
I love to take a photograph
So mama, don’t take my Kodachrome away.
(Kodachrome: Paul Simon – 1973)

I started hating cameras after my father joined Camhi/Bardovi Photography as their “opaque specialist”. This was a new commercial photography studio established in Culver City in 1956 or 57. He was offered this entry-level position by one of the partners, a friend from their Fred Archer Photography School days after the war. At first the job consisted of part-time work after his day job at Foix Bakery, and I imagined him as a budding disciple of Ansel Adams, and a real-life version of Man With a Camera, a 1950’s television series starring Charles Bronson. I suffered my first disillusionment with the profession when I learned what his job really consisted of. Opaque photography was the “old fashioned” method of “photo-shopping” one item of a photograph out of and on to a different background. It was done by hand, and required his sitting at a specially lit desk, and painting out, or masking, one figure or object from one photographic negative (or transparency) so it could be mounted on another photo. This painstaking work required a steady hand and a calm and patient demeanor (two characteristic which my dad demonstrated to us throughout his life), and it gave me my first insight into what photography was really all about.

Photography became incredibly popular in the 1940’s and 50’s after Eastman Kodak simplified the once cumbersome process into the slogan, “you press the button, we do the rest”. With the Kodak Brownie, the company made photography available to the masses, convincing them that it was a “snap and shoot” process. Unfortunately, by having a professional in the family, I learned otherwise. Photography was actually a time-consuming practice that required hard work and concentration in the darkroom before a final “positive” print, or photograph was produced. Most people never saw this part of the work. They simply pointed cameras, pushed buttons, deposited the completed rolls of film at a drug store, and picked up their prints the following week. This was the glamorous, consumer side of photography that I imagined when I received my first Brownie. It was magic, and I didn’t mind too much the delay of seeing the prints of photos I’d forgot I’d taken. However, when dad joined the Camhi/Bardovi Studio, I was finally exposed to the business side of the profession, and quickly lost my appreciation of its art and creativity.

You see, even though my father was a “professional”, working as a salaried photographer for a very reputable studio, it was more than a 9 to 5 job. In order to buy homes and raise families, photographers had to work well beyond those hours and function as laborers, craftsmen, artists, salesmen, and businessmen in order to live. This was hard, time-consuming work. My dad did favors and picked up extra money by photographing children, family and community events, weddings, and sports. He joined clubs, community organizations, and professional associations, and attended all their meetings and events. I became aware of this side of the business because, as the oldest child in my family, I was given the honor of being his assistant at many of these functions. I will admit that the responsibility was exciting at first, but after the second or third time, it became WORK. At family events and weddings, I wanted to join my brothers and sisters playing with cousins and uncles, not following my father around, carrying his extra cameras and flash bulbs. I wanted to watch the baseball and football games we attended in the stands, not moving from sideline to sideline, lugging equipment. The worst was joining him on Friday nights when he developed the film he shot, and printing the negatives to produce photos. This was a long, long process, which usually found me fast asleep, sitting in his desk chair, waiting for prints to dry. By the time I graduated high school, I had two ironclad opinions about photography: I would never become a professional, or adopt it as a hobby. This last opinion really confused Kathy after we married. She was completely befuddled by my total aversion to cameras. She had to assume that responsibility, and happily, she loved it and did a great job. Our photo albums are filled with her pictures of both our families and our children. If it hadn’t been for Kathy there would be no photographic evidence of our marriage, life, or children. I bring up these obscure pieces of family history because I’ve lately gotten involved in a new project that has resurrected some of these old feelings about a time-consuming aspect of digital photography.

Despite my long-held prejudices about photography, I have to confess that I have spent the last 16 years taking tons of pictures on ever-improving digital cameras. I started taking pictures while a principal at Van Nuys Middle School and discovered the ease and simplicity of the process on small, pocket-sized cameras. Gone was the intrusive camera with bulky equipment case and accessories, or the need for flash bulbs or batteries. Gone was the need to develop film in a darkroom, or even dropping it off at a store for processing. All I needed was my Canon Sureshot, a computer, and a printer, and I had instant photos. It was a miracle! Not only was it a functional and practical piece of equipment at school, where I could use it to record incidents, events, and people, but it was a way of interacting with people and recording family events. Of course, eventually the iPhone and other modern cell phones would match and overtake these early pocket-sized cameras, but they were my first, practical enticement back into my dad’s world of photography. I became so confident and visible in using my ubiquitous pocket camera at school, that when I retired from Sun Valley Middle School in 2009, I was given a high-quality Canon camera as my departing gift. Suddenly, and for the first time, I truly appreciated that part of my dad’s art that I never allowed in. I discovered that I loved taking pictures!

However, this last year, I’ve gotten into a panic about preserving my photos. At about the time I left Van Nuys Middle School in 2005, I purchased an external hard drive to save my expanding digital photo library and reduce the storage space on my computer. Up until then I’d been saving and backing up my photos on separate disks and flash drives. By the time I retired in 2009, I had managed to transfer all the photos on these disks and drives onto the external, hoping to consolidate. So from 2009, year-by-year, I was blissfully moving iPhoto albums from computer to the external hard drive, believing they were safe and secure. Well last year when Kathy went to retrieve an early photo from the external drive, she was shocked to discover that some files were unreadable and some were empty of photos. We could only conclude that the external had corrupted with time and many of my photos were lost. So began my search for a new method of storing and preserving all my photos. It was while researching the various “digital cloud” methods of storing photos, videos, and files, that I discovered that by virtue of our Amazon Prime membership we already had unlimited storage capability on the Amazon Cloud.

I’ve gotten myself stuck in long-term projects before, and I’ve learned that my initial enthusiasm doesn’t always survive long hours of monotonous, boring work involved. My one exception was the Vinyl Music Project that I started in August of 2010 (see The Vinyl Music Project) and finished on December 29, 2012 (see A Good Day For Me). It was not an easy 2-year process, and there were countless delays, frustrations, and interruptions, but I got it done. What drove me, I suppose, was my love of music. Music has a mystical ability to transport me through time, emotions, memories, and dreams. It is lovely to hear and experience on many levels. Well, I’m finally beginning to think of photography and photographs in the same way. Of course, most people immediately recognize the historical significance of photographs and their ability to document events, but since 2009, I think I’ve begun to see the art of photography in the way my father did, so many years ago. I think photography was music for my dad, and he knew how to play, compose, and arrange it in many, many ways. The hard work was simply part of the creative effort, and he didn’t dwell on that aspect. He kept his eyes on the final product.

My dad was not the only Delgado who became a hardworking artist and craftsman in the creative field of photography. He helped hire his younger brother, Ricardo (Kado) Delgado, who joined him at Camhi/Bardovi Photography for a few years before starting his own studio. And although my dad died much to soon to see his children marry, his grandson, Carlos Delgado, joined the profession in 2006 as a photo/journalist. My dad helped me appreciate the hardships of his chosen career, and I have unbounded admiration for the work of Kado, who ventured into color photography, and Carlos, who graduated into the digital age. I am a dilettante in comparison to these professionals, so the least I can do is put forward the effort to insure that the photos I’ve taken, and the old photos I’ve copied, are preserved in a place that is safe and accessible. So I’ll let you know how this new project proceeds.

Sep. 2nd, 2016

Dedalus 1966

When Life Was Slow

Try to remember the kind of September
When life was slow and oh, so mellow.
Try to remember the kind of September
When grass was green and grain was yellow.
Try to remember the kind of September
When you were a tender and callow fellow.
Try to remember, and if you remember,
Then follow…

Try to remember when life was so tender
That no one wept except the willow.
Try to remember when life was so tender
That dreams were kept beside your pillow.
Try to remember when life was so tender
That love was an ember about to billow.
Try to remember, and if you remember,
Then follow…

Deep in December, it’s nice to remember,
Although you know the snow will follow.
Deep in December, it’s nice to remember
Without a hurt the heart is hallow.
Deep in December, it’s nice to remember
The fire of September that made us mellow.
Deep in December, it’s nice to remember
And follow…
(Try To Remember: Schmidt and Jones, from musical The Fantasticks: 1960)

I read in the newspaper last week that the classic, off-Broadway musical, The Fantasticks was opening on September 6, 2016 at the Pasadena Playhouse. The lyrics of its famous hit song, “Try To Remember”, came immediately to mind. Soon I was flooded by images of my youth during the waning days of summer vacation and the advent of fall. There is something about that song, which I first heard in the mid-60’s, that sends me right back to that seasonal period of new beginnings…

I loved September. September, especially in the 1960’s, set the stage for the rest of the year. It was the dawn of a new school year, the debut of new car models and television season, the beginning of football season and baseball’s Fall classic, and the month of my birthday. My summers in the early 60’s were somehow different from the decade before, and the years after. I was 11 years old when we moved from the Silver Lake District of Los Angeles into Venice, California, and all subsequent summers changed after that. I was cut off from my long-time school and neighborhood friends who lived on Cove Ave, and kept me constantly busy and engaged. Summer slowed down in a strange, new beach town where I knew no one. I was forced to occupy my time by playing with siblings, and walking to the local playground. I also began spending a lot of time alone. I read, played with plastic soldiers and figures, and engaged in endless daydreaming. I would sit back in the shade of a tree in our backyard and imagine myself as the hero of the movies and TV programs I watched and replayed in my mind. I was Zorro, Robin Hood, Lancelot, or Ricky Nelson. I would close my eyes and cast myself in a leading role of the plots and stories of Spin and Marty, and the Hardy Boys. The downside to this idyllic summer was that it seemed to last FOREVER. The long, hot summers of my 60’s youth were incredibly boring because I was cut off from my early childhood roots. So I became alert and eager for any and all signals that summer was finally ending and something new was on the horizon.

The waning weeks of August always inaugurated the clarion calls of Back-To-School sales. Television commercials, radio ads, and newspaper spreads announced that it was time to shake off the ennui of summer and begin getting ready for school. School uniforms needed to be tried on and purchased, along with school supplies: fountain pens, pencils, lunch pails, and pee-chee folders. Every purchase promised the glamour of new subjects, new studies, new books, and new friends. As Labor Day approached, this excitement soon coalesced with the growing fears of a new school, new faces, and unknown school procedures, to create a new kind of tension. It was like the elation one feels when standing at the edge of a tall building or steep precipice; it was a bugle call to adventure and a moment of rebirth. And in those days, it usually started in September.

Another feature of our new home in Venice, was its proximity to a car dealership. Owen Keown Chevrolet was located on the corner of Washington and Lincoln Boulevards. We passed it almost every day in the car, or walking to the store, school, or to church. New car models had always been a big deal to my friends in the old neighborhood, who could rattle off the makes, models, and years of the automobiles that sped by our corner on Glendale Boulevard. I was never really interested in these annual changes until we moved, and suddenly new models became a part of the scenery. Chevrolet was the blockbuster brand of General Motors in the 60’s. Sure they also produced Cadillacs, Oldmobiles, Pontiacs, and Buicks, but Chevys were the peoples’ car, the “Volkswagen” of the late 50’s and early 60’s. There was even a hit song sung each week by Dinah Shore on her TV show:

“See the USA in your Chevrolet
America is asking you to call.
Drive your Chevrolet through the USA
America’s the greatest land of all.”

In late August, TV commercials would begin hyping the automobile clearance sales and the advent of the new car rollout. September was the time to trade up and buy new, because the latest models were here. I would pick up the glossy brochures when I walked by Owen Keown, and I would be on the look out for the new models in the show room. The cars were brand new in September. They were bigger, faster, more powerful and sleeker, and I had a front row seat to their première. This gave me the chance of sounding like a real, car-crazy teenager to the other kids at school. Going hand-in-hand with the hyping of Back-to-School and new model cars was the Fall Television season that also began in September.

My Dad was an ardent T.V. and movie fan, and he taught me to be alert to the end of summer because it presaged the new fall lineup of television shows and series. He would buy the special edition of T.V. Guide, and together we would review the contents to learn of the upcoming shows that began in September. We loved watching and talking about television shows. We bought our first console when I was 5. I remember watching Milton Berle, Sid Cesar, and Sheriff John as a child, and the Mickey Mouse Club and the Wonderful World of Disney (first simply called Disneyland) as I got older. But I really wanted to see the programs my dad watched after 9:00 p.m., when we went to bed: Sea Hunt, Peter Gunn, The Naked City, The Fabulous 52, Gunsmoke, and The Twilight Zone. Again our move to Venice ushered in a new era for me in television viewing because, for the first time, we had a TV set in our bedroom. Since the new house came with a built-in, color television console in the living room, our old black and white model was placed in the boys’ room. That first summer I watched noontime television shows in my room, and negotiated a vacation-time expansion of viewing hours. My sibs and I were allowed to watch shows beyond 9 o’clock, but never past 10. Another seasonal change that I began noticing after our move to the Westside was sports. Even though we were farther away from the Coliseum and Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles, I was ushered into the world of organized youth sports with their unique seasonal overtones.

I had played one summer of baseball in a uniform-less, playground league in Silver Lake, but finally encountered the official Little League organization in Venice. This was the Big Leagues for me, because it came with logo caps, full uniforms, and specialized sporting equipment. Playing ball in such an organized manner also ushered in a closer identification with major league baseball and the Dodgers. I began listening to Vin Scully’s broadcasts on a regular basis and closely monitored each pitching start of Sandy Koufax in the hopes of catching the Perfect Game. August signaled the closing days of the baseball season, while ushering in the excitement of a pennant race and the World Series. The World Series in September and October was a great complement to the end of summer and the start of school. Just as we were building a relationship with a new teacher and students, their attitude about baseball determined what we talked about or heard in the classroom. A hardnosed teacher meant zero radio time, and a rocky relationship, but baseball and the series dominated recess discussions for weeks.

At the end of my first and only Little League year, my dad also introduced me to Pop Warner Football. Football made Little League baseball appear juvenile and childish, because it was a sport that required specialized equipment and so much discipline and training. The game consisted of a plethora of skills that had to be taught, learned, practiced, and experienced, year after year, in order to improve. The “dog days of summer” took on a personal meaning for me in August, as I ran, drilled, and sweated to get into shape. Pop Warner games began in September, and I played for three years until I quit when I collided with the brutal realities at the high school level. But I never lost my love for it, and I continued playing touch games throughout high school and college. So August with its practices and scrimmages was the precursor of the season that began in September, and became synonymous with the start of high school and college. Eventually football and school became one and the same, the two parts of a single breathe. Even now that I’m so many years removed from a high school and college environment, September still calls up memories and anticipation of both.

Finally my birthday fell on September 22 (which I subsequently learned was usually the autumnal equinox, and the beginning of Fall). In my youth, this coincidence seemed to go along with the new school year, car models, television shows, and football season. It too signaled the end of the somnambulant summer and a new beginning, a new stage of development, and the awareness that I was getting older, and closer to being a teenager and an adult. But in those days my birthday couldn’t come fast enough. I was frustrated by the slow manner in which time progressed, especially summer. I felt I would never catch the upper classmen in school and my youngest uncle and aunt in the family.

It was in the summer of 1965 that I first read about the performances of The Fantasticks at the Ivar Theatre in Hollywood, and heard its signature song. I was entering my senior year in high school, and the song made me suddenly aware of the transitions I had experienced the previous 6 summers. That is what the song Try to Remember meant to me: change and seasonal transitions are the natural order of things and all we will have left are the memories. At the age of seventeen this realization brought forth my first wave of nostalgia for the grammar and high school days and summers that had passed, and I wondered what lay ahead. Of course, as is the wont of senior high school boys caught in the flux and flow of growing up, I soon forgot about that philosophical moment of nostalgia and simply moved forward with my life.

Today, time flies and the years pass more quickly than I want. Our children seem to have caught up to us in age, and our granddaughters grow older in the blink of an eye. The Fantasticks’ song still has the same timeless affect on me, but I don’t dwell on its hidden themes of transition, renewal, and eventual death. Rather it’s about looking back in the Decembers of our lives, and remembering the fires of September that made us mellow, when we were still tender and callow fellows. I wonder if I dare see the play again?

Aug. 17th, 2016

Tres Amigos

Call to Adventure

“A hero ventures forth
From the world of common day
Into a region of supernatural wonder:
Fabulous forces are there encountered,
And a decisive victory is won.
The hero comes back from this mysterious adventure
With the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.”
(Joseph Campbell: The Hero with a Thousand Faces – 1949)

What finally hit me in the gym, as I was listening to Joseph Campbell’s words about the various stages of the hero’s journey and the universal motifs and metaphors used in classic myths and folktales, was that those same characteristics were present in an essay I wrote in 2007. The story was called Tres Mujeres (see Tres Mujeres), and it recounted the events of a trip I took with my high school friends, Greg and John, to Ensenada, in Baja California. At the time I called it an “adventure” because I wanted it to sounds special, even though it was just another of our many road trips. The original story is available on the link provided, but the retelling of the journey is not my main intent. What I discovered for the first time, as my mind reflected on Campbell’s words in the gym, was how many similarities this story shared with Campbell’s stages of the monomyth, and the metaphors and motifs found in the classical myths and tales of the hero’s journey.

I missed many of the key points in Campbell’s book the first time I read it. I was searching for insights into comparative mythologies that would reveal information about Man’s quest for spiritual truth. I wanted to know the secrets and mysteries that heroes discovered and brought back from their mythical journeys. I was certainly not expecting Campbell’s idea that all human lives are reenactments of the struggles in these journeys, and that all human beings project the same unconscious motifs and metaphors that appear in classical mythologies and folktales. It was this central tenet (that human dreams are windows into the collective unconscious, which in turn generated the archetypes and motifs found in classical mythology) that was the biggest stumbling block for me. My epiphany was the realization that my own life and stories, and those of my friends, did in fact mirror the hero’s journey in many ways.

According to Campbell, “the standard path of the mythological adventure of the hero is a magnification of the formula represented in the rites of passage: 1) Separation, 2) Initiation, and 3) Return”. He called this journey of the hero the monomyth, a term he borrowed from James Joyce’s Finnigans Wake. Campbell then sub-divided these three stages of the hero’s journey into eleven components. It is important to note that Campbell stressed that all of these parts or divisions are sytructural devices only, and they do not have to be present, or in the same order, in all mythological tales of quests or journeys. There is great diversity in the tales told of heroes and heroines in the different cultures, tribes, and religions of the world. In my particular story of the Tres Mujeres, I easily identified 7 components of the three-part monomyth:

I. Separation or Departure
            1. Call to Adventure
            2. Crossing of the First Threshold
            3. Supernatural Aid

II. Trials and Victories of Initation
            4. The Road of Trials.
            5. The Meeting with the Goddess
            6. The Belly of the Whale, or the World Navel.

III. Return and Reintegration with Society
            7. The Ultimate Boon

In my story, The Call to Adventure occurred at the Kansas City Barbecue in San Diego, the site where many scenes of the movie Top Gun were filmed:

The tone of the trip was set when John and I finally arrived at Greg’s condominium in San Diego, on Saturday afternoon. Instead of hurrying off toward the border, after a torturously long and time-consuming drive on the 405 Freeway, we decided to slow down, relax, and saunter over to the Kansas City Barbecue, a local BBQ place for sandwiches and beers. We languidly sipped our beer and toasted our reunion, while sitting in the sunny, outdoor patio, overlooked by towering resort hotels and high rises. As beach-clad walkers passed by, we began to verbalize impromptu hopes for the weekend. John was curious about the Carnival/Mardi Gras festivities in Ensenada. Greg was interested in investigating rental homes in Rosarito, for the Bicycle Ride in April. We all hoped to re-visit the wine country in the Guadalupe Valley. All of these ideas were popular, but the question was, could we fit everything within the time we had remaining? We only had this afternoon, the evening, and all day Sunday? After a second round of beer, we concluded that it was worth a try. We had nothing to lose, and much to gain, if everything worked out. At the conclusion of lunch, we hopped into John’s truck and headed for the border. From this point on, all of our activities followed a pattern. Our journey would come to a point of crisis and disaster, and then, magically, come together.

As Campbell points out, this Call does not require a momentous, life-altering reveille. It can be a great or small incident, a challenge, or a blunder the hero falls into. The Call is simply an opportunity to participate in a mystery – a rite, or moment, of spiritual passage, which, when completed, amounts to a symbolic dying and rebirth. This first stage of the mythical journey signifies that destiny has summoned the hero, and is offering him the chance to move his spiritual center from the ordinary world of 4 compass points and 5 senses to an unknown zone.

I am amazed at how my short, simple paragraph could hold some many mythical aspects identified by Campbell. Three friends, whom I described as “a soldier and paramedic”, a “seer and visionary”, and a “scribe and recorder” from different parts of the state, came together in San Diego to consider a trip into a foreign country. They reviewed their needs, hopes, and desires, and considered the problems, difficulties, and dangers they would face. Time seemed to be their biggest obstacle. Could they accomplish their tasks in the time allowed or should they change their minds and do something else? The situation presented a challenge and an adventure, and the three friends accepted the Call, not really understanding what they were getting into.

As the story continued, the friends confronted and crossed the First Threshold soon after leaving the border and then quickly encountered the first of many protective figures who would provide Supernatural Assistance and speed them on their way:

As soon as we crossed the border, we were gridlocked on the single, winding road from Tijuana to Rosarito, for (what seemed) hours. In frustration, I suggested that we forsake stopping at Rosarito and head straight for Ensenada, getting there before dark. “Don’t give up yet”, Greg reassured me. “Things might loosen up”. And they did. We finally discovered that the bottleneck was caused by a strangling, military checkpoint, manned by 10 beardless boys, in camouflage uniforms, hefting huge automatic weapons. The sight was chilling. Children with guns would unsettle any driver forced to stop. Once past this bottleneck, however, we sped into Rosarito, where good luck followed us. We located a landlady/realtor with whom we had rented last year. She showed us three homes that were available for the weekend we wanted, and in less than an hour, we were back on the road to Ensenada. We left deposits for the rental of two beach area homes that would accommodate our party of 10 cyclists.

Campbell described the First Threshold as the barrier, or wall, that surrounds the “normal world” of 4 directions (plus up and down) and 5 senses. Huge, menacing giants, ogres, or monsters protected the supernatural lands that lay beyond by guarding this barrier at a gate or entrance. This Threshold was the “Wall of Paradise” which separated the world from heaven, and prevented human beings from seeing the beatific face of God. Representations of these threshold sentries can still be seen as the lions, gargoyles, and supernatural beasts that guard the facades and entrances to cathedrals and temples. In my story, I identified the threshold guardians as the beardless youths who controlled the narrow entrance to the toll road from Tijuana to Rosarito. I didn’t dwell on how they were overcome, but stressed that their ominous presence, with such deadly weapons, warned us that we were entering a very dangerous realm, and should consider turning back. I also mentioned the landlady as the first of many supernatural helpers who helped us throughout this journey.

Campbell characterizes the Supernatural Helper as “the helpful crone or fairy godmother who is a familiar feature in European fairy tales. In Christian legends the role of helper is commonly played by the Virgin, whose intercession wins the mercy of the Father for the traveler. The hero who comes under the protection of the Cosmic Mother cannot be harmed. Such a figure represents the benign, protecting power of destiny. The fantasy is a reassurance – a promise that the peace of Paradise, which was known first within the mother womb, is not to be lost… One has only to know and trust, and the ageless guardians will appear. The hero finds all the forces of the unconscious on his side. Mother Nature herself supports the mighty task”.

This reassurance of aid and assistance is not only provided by outside agents. The hero of the journey already brings with him resources and skills which he has previous received, learned, or won. In my tale, each of the three friends brings with them skills and talents they have learned or acquired over the years and which promise to assist them in overcoming the obstacles of the journey ahead. I described them as follows:

John is the soldier of the group. He guides, guards and cares for us on all our travels. His experiences as an infantryman, ambulance driver, paramedic and fire fighter, all prepared him for this role. On many occasions, he has also been our nursemaid, worrying about our health, finances, and bad habits. Greg, on the other hand is, as a superintendent of schools, a Visionary and Seer of endless possibilities whenever we traveled.  Greg remembers more arcane and useless information than anyone I know. For example, he claimed to know the names of all the heavenly constellations, but I was never sure if he was reciting factual or fictional names. After describing the happenings of my wife and adult children, I quickly quizzed them about their reactions to my blog (internet log), which I had just made public the week before. I also warned them that I would be writing about this trip as well. I would be the official scribe on this adventure, recording with camera and pen. We were three amigos, getting older, and hopefully, wiser.

It is at this point in my story that we crossed completely into the heart of the journey and the trials that awaited us… To be continued.
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Aug. 12th, 2016


Intro: Epiphany

“Whether the hero be ridiculous or sublime,
Greek or barbarian, gentile or Jew,
His journey varies little in essential plan.
Popular tales represent the heroic action as physical;
The higher religions show the deed to be moral;
Nevertheless, there will be found astonishingly little variation
In the morphology of the adventure, the character involved,
Or the victories gained.”
(Joseph Campbell: The Hero with a Thousand Faces – 1949)

As I mentioned back in September, I finally decided to lose some weight and get into shape by joining Weightwatchers and 24 Hour Fitness. When I hit the big fitness roadblock of keeping ones mind engaged during mind-numbing, repetitive exercises (rowing machine, treadmill, and stationary bike), Kathy suggested I try Audible. Audible is an Amazon company that specializes in downloadable, spoken audio books. Originally, our son Tony had enrolled Kathy as an Audible member and purchased some audio books for her as a gift. It proved successful enough for her to recommend it to me as a listening distraction during exercise. So, I started by listening to audio books that were already in her library, and then purchasing more. I HEARD The Boys in the Boat by Daniel Day Brown, The Longest Way Home by Andrew McCarthy, Transatlantic by Colum McCann, The Martian by Andy Weir, The Last Lion: Winston Churchill, Volume I by William Manchester, and Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow. To my surprise I found that non-fiction audio books were much more engaging than fiction, and that listening to books I had read in the past allowed me to rediscover their fascination and, sometimes, understand them better. This listening strategy resolved two problems: keeping my mind engaged in the middle of endless physical repetition, and revisiting books I loved reading many years before. It worked so well with William Shirer’s massive tome, The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, that I decided to try it on Joseph Campbell’s 1949 book, The Hero with a Thousand Faces.

I originally read Campbell’s seminal work of comparative mythology a year or two after watching the PBS television series with Bill Moyers, The Power of Myth, in 1988. The series enchanted me during a time of personal spiritual searching and I was compelled to search out more of Campbell’s works over the years. Sadly, as often happens with inspiring books one reads a long time ago, the details of Campbell’s work grew hazy and blurry over the years, and I could only recall a few general themes and ideas. So I leapt at the opportunity of experiencing his book once again through a different medium.

As Campbell’s words and ideas began flowing through me on the rowing machine and treadmills, my mind started drifting as it once did when I jogged long distances. This “mental drift” was a pleasure I had thought lost. It is a timeless space when your Unconscious peeks out and erupts while your Conscious Mind is sedated by the rhythmic and repetitive action of physical movement. Joggers compare it to the endorphin high they get while running, but mental drift is different. It is an unconscious cloud of seemingly unconnected thoughts and ideas that sometimes explode in a pulse-racing, lighting strike of an epiphany. An endorphin high makes you feel great, but an epiphany is a mystical experience of enlightenment – it’s the “Ah-hah!” moment when you “get it”.

My mind was drifting during Campbell’s retelling of myths, fables, and stories – especially dreams. His reliance on dream analysis by noted psychotherapists as a window to the human unconscious troubled me. I found myself doubting his thesis because I rarely indulged in recalled dreams and almost never wrote them down. I certainly never remembered them in the detailed fashion recorded by psychoanalysts. I felt I was missing a personal connection to Campbell’s ideas. Then one day at the gym, as my mind again drifted to Campbell’s illustrations of how dreams, folk tales, and legends incorporated many of the same unconscious motifs and metaphors of classic mythology and religious cosmologies, my brain exploded.
“Wait!” I exclaimed to myself. “I don’t recall personal dreams with mythical motifs and metaphors, but I have told stories that used them.”
That’s when my mind flashed on a blog story I wrote in 2007 called Tres Mujeres.

To be continued…

May. 14th, 2016

Tres Amigos

Memories of the Soul

In my Old San Juan, so many dreams I forged, in my childhood years.
My first illusions, and my unrequited loves, are memories of the soul.
One afternoon I departed for a place far away, that’s how destiny wished it.
But my heart stayed behind, at the edge of the sea, of my Old San Juan.

Farewell, farewell – farewell
My goddess of the sea – my Queen of the palms.
I go, I’m leaving now – but someday I’ll return.
To find my true love, to dream once again, in my Old San Juan.
Translation of the national song of San Juan: En Mi Viejo San Juan - Noel Estrada, 1943)

I’ve been struggling for months about how to describe my recent trip to Puerto Rico. Should I make it a travelogue about our explorations of this enchanted, Caribbean island? Should I make it about the joys of a healthy recovery after a health scare in Dublin? Or, should I make it about friendship and the importance of relationships that stretch back to high school? I finally decided to just start writing in the hope that the story would figure itself out. It ultimately became an epic-long odyssey about three old friends who took an impulsive trip together. Greg summarized it best on various occasions in Puerto Rico: when we stood overlooking the expansive Atlantic shoreline of San Juan from the parapet of  “la Fortaleza”; when we sat in a patio bar modeling our new Panama hats; and when we played dominos in our hotel room after a day of exploring.
“Isn’t this great,” he would sigh. “Here we are, three retired, old friends who can just take a trip to Puerto Rico without work, worry, or constraints. These are moments that we’ll never forget”.
That was pretty much the mood for the whole trip, and Greg was the instigator.

I never thought that I would ever see the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, the Caribbean island 762 miles southwest of Cuba. I simply knew it as the American territory gained after the Spanish-American War in 1898, and that many natives, who at birth become naturalized American citizens, emigrated to the United States to work. The idea came up by chance during a telephone conversation with my friend Greg, who lives in San Diego. I was calling him to describe my recent trip to Ireland, and the medical issues I experienced. It was only when I asked him what he was up to that he mentioned his upcoming trip to San Juan, Puerto Rico, to judge a barbecue contest in February.  I was surprised and impressed. I had known for a while that he traveled up and down California judging barbecue competitions, and I had hoped to join him at one, if it came close to Los Angeles. But I never imagined that he would travel so far to judge a contest, especially one in such an exotic location. Puerto Rico was the next best thing to going to Cuba – there were beaches, rain forests, historical cities, music, art, and great food. It also had the advantage of a more or less bilingual population that used American currency and US cell phone providers. In my questioning I learned that Greg was going alone. At the end of our conversation, I praised him for his sense of adventure, expressed a little envy, and wished him luck. When I recounted this conversation to Kathy later that evening, she simply said, “You should go too!”
“Are you serious,” I stammered, not believing what I heard.
“Yes,” she insisted. “Don’t you want to go?” she added, “because I think you should. You didn’t get much of a vacation in Ireland, and I think this trip will be good for you.”
This staggering suggestion, and Kathy’s willingness to act as my travel agent in making all the arrangements, sealed the deal. I was in a tropical haze for a few days and then I received another bombshell from John. He called the following Sunday to check on my convalescence from Ireland, and then mentioned that Greg had also called him with news about my joining him in Puerto Rico.
“Yeah,” I said, “I don’t know what got into me. When Kathy said I should go, I suddenly realized that I wanted to.”
“Yeah, “ he responded, “that happened to me too. When I mentioned your trip to my wife Kathy, she told me to get out of the house and join you two in Puerto Rico. So I’m going too.”

Greg and I arrived in San Juan at 6:30 in the morning, Atlantic Standard Time (AST), on Friday, February 19th, about 6 hours before John. Upon our arrival, I asked Greg if we were catching a cab to the hotel.
“No,” he replied, matter-of-factly, “I’m renting a car”.
This was stunning news and it changed all of my previous expectations of the trip. Miraculously, we somehow managed to navigate our way to the hotel in the Convention Center District of San Juan, where we checked in and asked the receptionist for a walking map of San Juan.
“You do not truly wish to walk to Old San Juan?” the amazed receptionist queried. “I can request a taxi for you.”
“How long a walk is it to the old city?” Greg asked. “We’ve been on airplanes for hours. A walk would do us good.”
“It would take about an hour, I think”, she replied, “so a taxi would be better.”
“Ahh, señorita,” intoned Greg with a charming smile, “a short walk would be a great way to stretch our legs.”

I love walking and exploring a new city, and Viejo San Juan was a delight. Now understand that Old San Juan, especially the tourist section concentrated in the westernmost part of the bay, is not “typical” to the rest of the island. The colonial streets are narrow and paved with ancient blue bricks. Apartments and homes are balconied and painted in the colonial style of the 1600’s. Many of these buildings serve as street level shops and restaurants, with residents living on the second and third floors. Here English is the default language, and even when speaking to the natives in Spanish, they pronounce English words using standard English vernacular – a hamburger is pronounced hamburger, not hamburguesa. It is in the non-tourist sections of town, especially in the southern and eastern parts of the Bay that the architecture becomes more functional and typical of a modern city, and Spanish is the exclusive language.

In another time, when Greg and I lived and traveled in Mexico City during the summer of 1973, we would metro, bus, and walk everywhere in and around the city. In those youthful days, we were convinced that we could never get lost, even when we failed to reach our desired destination right away. Every excursion was an exploration through an unknown wonderland, and we were navigating our own course and drawing our own map. Every sight was a novelty, every missed turn an adventure, and all we needed was time to recalculate our location, make corrections, and reach our goal – eventually. This again happened on our first day in San Juan.  We crossed the channel of the Bay and took, as it turned out, the longest route to the Old City. We ignored “El Condado”, the popular beachside resort area, and made our way toward the center of the old city along a seaside street that changed names and appearance every block. We passed La Iglesia de San Agustin, and then another street dotted with municipal and Federal buildings. Soon we spotted the distinctive Castillo de San Cristobál, the fortress signaling the beginning of the walled city of Old San Juan.

As it turned out, 9 am was the perfect hour to explore the narrow cobblestone streets of San Juan. The serpentine traffic and densely parked cars had not yet appeared and we were able to truly appreciate the blue, red, and green colonial facades, verandas, and overhanging balconies that surrounded and overlooked us as we walked. We found Ole’s Hat Store (the hat store mentioned in a New York Times Travel article we had read), and vowed to return later with John. We made our way to the Bayside of the city and headed back to the hotel along a modern street that skirted the piers, docks, and parks that studded the shore. Although it proved the shortest route home, it seemed a longer walk because of the weather. It was getting hotter and brighter, with no seaside breezes to cool us down, and we were becoming worried about being late to pick up John at the airport.

Something happens to Greg when he’s in a Spanish-speaking country. I saw it occurring for the first time when we traveled to Mexico City in the summer of 1973, and every time since, whenever we’ve traveled through Baja California throughout the years. Greg goes native. His Spanish fluency reasserts itself, and he becomes strangely emboldened to try, or do, ANYTHING. He changes from being just an encouraging friend and supporter, into a bold and assertive innovator and field commander. While he never actually drove while we were in Mexico City, I could tell by the way he studied the streets, the traffic and driving patterns, and the techniques of the drivers who chauffeured us around. And he has ever since. I witnessed this metamorphosis of Greg into a Puerto Rican driver on our trip back to the airport to pick up John. Again, as his copilot, I knew the direction we were supposed to travel, and I held the cell phone GPS in my hand, but the streets of San Juan did not cooperate. After one failed attempt had us driving away from the airport, Greg finally concluded that the highway to the airport was dividing into parallel routes that were actually frontage roads (eventually we translated the Spanish road sign “laterales” to mean just that). Anyway, between the oral directions coming from the GPS, and Greg’s intuitive assimilation of Puerto Rican road signs and traffic patterns, we finally arrived at the airport and found John waiting outside of the arrival gates. After getting him checked into his room, we resumed our explorations of Old San Juan. Only this time we drove there and bought our Panama hats.

There is something special about strolling through Old San Juan on a warm and sunny afternoon in an authentic Panama hat. Although we all agreed that we paid exorbitant amounts of money for the privilege of wearing a hat purchased at the New York Times recommended millinery, the experience was worth it. We were hand fitted for size and shape, and shown the various colors and textures of hatbands we could choose and have attached. I walked out of the store feeling every inch a Puerto Rican native, and I mocked Greg and John for their precaution of shipping their hats home from the store (a precaution I took the following day when faced with a possible rainstorm).

I once roomed with Greg and John for about 6 months in an apartment in Santa Monica while I was attending graduate school at UCLA. It was during those carefree, bachelor days, when I was dating Kathleen that I saw what a volatile combination these two friends made in two areas. They literally energized and challenged each other in developing the most creative and outlandish culinary menus and travel itineraries I’d ever heard of. They seemed to unleash in each other a limitless number of crazy ideas, plans, and trips. John didn’t blink when he learned that Greg had rented a car in Puerto Rico and was planning on driving.
“Great! Where are we going?” He simply asked.
It was clear that we were not going to be bound to the city. With John bringing along his own Garmin GPS to complement his wanderlust, he had complete confidence that with Greg driving we could travel anywhere and find any place. For example, we quickly realized that it would be cheaper to buy a couple of bottles of wine at a store rather than pay hotel prices. So John convinced Greg to drive to a liquor store he found on his GPS that was 8 miles, or 10 minutes away from Old Town. Well, 15 minutes later, on a highway taking us to the other side of the bay, we knew there was a problem. We passed countless shopping centers and big box stores like Wal-Mart and Sam’s Club, and still we followed the verbal directions of the Garmin. Eventually we came to an address in the city of Bayamon that looked like a store, but turned out being a neighborhood bar in a seedy part of town. So much for the Garmin’s ability to find liquor stores in San Juan! But even that experience didn’t dampen Greg or John’s enthusiasm to explore the island. Over very expensive glasses of hotel wine that evening, Greg and John planned our drive and itinerary for Saturday.

Our second day in San Juan began with John and I walking to a convenience store, while Greg attended an orientation meeting for the judges and officials of the Barbecue Competition on Sunday. The “nearby” store turned out to be an uphill climb that went on for almost two miles. I loved it because we broke free of the Convention District and wandered through a regular, middle class, residential neighborhood with homes, shops, and condominiums. This was the first time I was in a normal living environment, and I relished the signs, the slow traffic, and the snatches of conversation I overheard from passing pedestrians. On our return, we found Greg ready and eager to begin our quest to find a tropical rainforest. Other than our accidental trip to Bayamon, Saturday would be our first real taste of Puerto Rico outside of San Juan. Leaving the hotel and traveling east, we passed the airport and quickly headed into the countryside of the island. At Rio Grande, about 32 miles out of San Juan, we went off highway toward the mountains, and the threatening clouds gathering over them. Signs soon directed us to El Yunque National Forest, the only tropical rainforest in the United States National Park system.

John had hazy memories of his first visit to this rainforest in Puerto Rico, and he served as our guide when we reached El Portal, the Visitor’s Center of the forest. It was there, as we left the car, that John and Greg looked at me and inspected my tropical apparel – sandals, shorts, golf shirt and my new Panama hat.
“Are you sure you want to wear that?” John said, pointing to my hat.
“Why?” I asked naively.
“One cloudburst and it’s done”, Greg added.
“Really?” I forlornly questioned.
My two friends nodded silently, as I solemnly turned around, took off my hat, and returned to the car. I finally recognized their wisdom in shipping their Panama hats from the store. Although the weather had been remarkably hospitable, the forecast for the week called for cloudy conditions with daily intermittent rain. So far, we had experienced a sunny Friday and a cloudy Saturday morning, with ocean breezes picking up in the afternoons, but that could change suddenly in the mountains. Although insects or rain had not bothered us so far, the skies above the tropical forest were fast becoming darker and more ominous.

John advised us to restrict ourselves to the well tended, walking trails and use the car for longer forays into the rainforest. The whole experience was a revelation. Even on a manicured trail, we saw, heard, and felt the lush, moist, and thick vegetation that surrounded us. We were in constant shadows, not just from the overhanging trees, ferns, vines, and branches but also from the build up of low-lying clouds. It seemed like the moist vegetation around us was the source of the rising mists and darkening clouds. Occasionally, rays of sunlight pierced through, but quickly disappear, as if spotlights were being turned on and off. We assumed that frogs and parrots accounted for the calls and cries that we heard along the trail. Overall I was delighted with my first rainforest trek, especially since I was not interested in a jungle experience with snakes, mosquitoes, jaguars, and other carnivorous mammals and reptiles. After our forest hike, we followed the paved road up the mountain to the Yokahu Observation Tower. The tower, and its surrounding vegetation, was by far the most impressive stop because it provided such a wide, breathtaking view of the rainforest and the lush mountainsides sweeping up from the coastal city in the distance. You could see the steam rising from the mountain vegetation after each misting rainfall. It was a glorious afternoon, capped off by a sumptuous cena at a restaurant in a barrio on the outskirts of San Juan.

How Greg discovers these places always mystifies me, and when he and John begin trading culinary tips and cooking recommendations, I am doubly bewildered. But I will admit that they have rarely steered me wrong when it comes to new foods and restaurants. La Casita Blanca was a restaurant off the beaten tourist track, with a fantastic reputation and a menu that was exotic and savory. I’ve adopted a rule of thumb about restaurants that use daily handwritten menus on whiteboards or chalkboards – they prepare dishes that are fresh, typical of the region, and delicious. La Casita Blanca offered all of that. It was where I truly learned to appreciate mofongo, an Afro-Puerto Rican side dish made of fried plantains. I had tried them with a cod dinner the night before at a restaurant near the hotel, but I only appreciated them here. The meal ended with complimentary shots of chichaito, a licorice drink of anise and coffee. Of course, now I regret not having taken pictures of my meal and appetizers, an Instagram practice I had foresworn. On our return to the hotel, Greg and I dropped John off and drove into Old Town to have my hat shipped home. There we began loitering and window-shopping for possible gifts and purchases. We added a little bar hopping and discovered La Barrachina, a hotel, restaurant, and patio bar that claimed to be the home of the piña colada, and Punto de Vista Bar, a restaurant on the rooftop of the Hotel Milano, where we toasted their signature mojitos. About the only thing we purchased was a set of dominos, which we began playing that night over wine and munchies. On Sunday, we would finally address the real reason for our trip to Puerto Rico – attending the International Barbecue Contest being held at a bayside park in San Juan.

John and I were always curious about Greg’s judging at barbecue contests. Soon after his retirement in 2010, he completed a course to become a certified judge, and started evaluating grilled and smoked meats at countless contests in California and the American Southwest. Despite his attempts at describing these events to us, John and I never got a clear idea of what he actually did. We imagined these contests were something like the chili cook-offs and wine-tastings we had attended that were sponsored by civic and business clubs and organizations. Whatever we imagined, we were not prepared for what we found in San Juan. First of all, we did not expect to find it in such an upscale setting. Rather than holding it in an aging municipal park or rural event space, the location was on the luxurious bayside of Old San Juan, in a futuristic park next to a massive cruise ship, with hotels, shops, and restaurants across the street. We also didn’t expect the cost. Even Greg was caught by surprise and asked us if we were sure about paying such a steep price for admission. John and I looked at each other and shrugged.
“This is what we came for.” I told Greg, and paid.
With Greg rushing off to check in with the event officials, John and I wandered around the grounds, looking in amazements at the plethora of pavilions, product sponsors, food tents, grilling and smoking equipment. I had never seen so many high tech and modern barbecue tools and appliances in my life. I was stunned into silence at the diversity and expense. Later, after locating the tent sheltering the Judge’s Table and waving at Greg, he joined us during a break with food samples and more information. This competition was sanctioned by the Kansas City Barbecue Society (KCBS), one of the largest organizations in the US, and it was divided into four rounds, each serving different meats – chicken, pork ribs, pork shoulder, and brisket. He explained that each entry was judged after taking only one or two bites, scoring for appearance, taste, and tenderness. In this way we passed the early afternoon, John and I wandering about the grounds, sampling meats, or sitting in the shade of a bar side pavilion, and waiting for Greg to join us with more food.

By Sunday night, after three days of eating, shopping, and driving to the rainforests of the eastern mountains, we felt confident in expanding our horizons to the Caribbean side of the island. When I say “we”, I really mean Greg and John. They were desperate to go anywhere new, and I became infected with this enthusiasm to breakout of the confines of the capitol and its surrounding towns and communities. My own internet research found the colonial city of Ponce on the opposite side of the island, with an ideal midway stop at the city of Caguas. As I was reading aloud about the town and its nearby sights, Greg interrupted.
“Wait, did you say Guavate? I’ve heard about that place”. He stopped for a moment to speak into his phone and then read the result of his query.
“Here it is – Guavate. Guavate has La Ruta del Lechón, the ‘Silk Road of Roasted Pork!
My God, how can we not stop at this place?”
Although we were a little “barbecued out” at the moment, I had to admit that the famed Road of Lechoneras sounded interesting. So after further investigation it was decided that we would depart on Monday for a trans-island road trip, stopping at Caguas and Guavate before crossing over to Ponce. From there we would return across the island to Arecibo, and then continue back to San Juan. I foolishly assumed our itinerary was set.

As any exotic place you see for the first time, the highland city of Caguas, midway between San Juan and Ponce, was a wonderful surprise. We entered from the commercial sector of the town on a busy Monday, and quickly made our way to the tranquil central plaza with its colonial cathedral and government buildings. It was just awakening to the day on the morning we arrived. The carousel was closed, and vendors and pedestrians were arriving to take up their stations near the fountain, gardens, and benches along tree-lined walkways. We walked around the square and then entered the Catedral del Dulce Nombre de Jesús (the Cathedral of the Sweet Name of Jesus). From there we made our way along a nearby mall, lined with kiosks, restaurants, and shops, which were just opening. Eventually we came to the Centro de Bellas Artes, a fine arts complex, located just west of the Plaza, where we returned to the car. Resuming our road trip we drove to “La Ruta del Lechon” (Roasted Pork Road), in Guavate. This route wound its way up a mountainous road, shaded by overhanging bamboo trees, until we entered a stretch of Lechoneras, or rustic roadside eateries, on both sides of the road. These establishments specialized in one dish, lechón, or spit-roasted suckling pig. Even though it was early, all three of us felt the need to stop and sample this cuisine that attracts tourists and locals from all over the island. After the delicious meal, we resumed our travels across the island to the Caribbean.

Ponce, the second largest city in Puerto Rico, is called La Perla del Sur (the Pearl of the South) and is famous for its beautiful neoclassical and colonial style architecture and facades. Upon entering the city limits, we again made our way to the central plaza (Plaza de las Delicias) where we were greeted by more lovely gardens, fountains, tree-lined walkways with benches, and a nearby cathedral. The most eye-catching attraction was a glaring red and black antique firehouse in the corner of the plaza called El Parque de Bombas (Park of Pumps). From there, with a freshly acquired mapa turístico in hand, we spent the next 90 minutes exploring Ponce – inspecting and commenting on its buildings and museums, and finally relaxing and recapping at a local bar and grill. I would have to say that after San Juan, Ponce is the place to see and stay in Puerto Rico. The city is old and lovely without the commercialized air of San Juan, an authentic mix of old and new, without the Disneyland Main Street feel of the capitol city.

It was at this bar, called La Parrilla 50 that I lost control of the itinerary and what Greg and John were planning. As I reviewed my photos in a corner booth over a glass of beer, the old traveling buddies went into a quiet discussion over a map. I assumed we would be making our way north, along Hwy 10, through the mountains to Arecibo on the Atlantic shore, and perhaps stopping there. However, I became suspicious when we returned to the car and John took the shotgun seat, forcing me to the back. I knew something was afoot when we started winding through a series of side streets and back roads, but I didn’t say anything until we exited the main highway and headed up toward the hills on a one lane road.
“Now where are we going?” I asked from the rear.
“It’s a surprise”, Greg responded, without elaboration.
“You’ll see,” John added.
The pair remained silent until the road became extremely rugged and more and more wild.
“I think I took the wrong turn back there”, Greg finally muttered as he stopped the car at a hilltop intersection with a gas station.
“Which turn was that?” I groused aloud, since we had been curving our way up the mountain for the last 30 minutes. At least this stop gave me the chance to exit the car and get my bearings. Looking south from the mountainside crossroad, I could see the wondrous sight of the city of Ponce and the Caribbean shoreline in the far distance. If nothing else, the view made the mystery trip worthwhile.
When I reentered the car, I was greeted with Greg’s assurance of, “Okay, I think I know what happened”.
“So where are we going?” I asked again.
“We’re looking for John’s coffee plantation”, he finally admitted.
We turned around and Greg actually did, somehow, find a coffee plantation (which, unfortunately, was closed to the public on Mondays). From that point on, I gave up predicting where we were going and simply enjoyed the ride. I especially loved the sudden, tropical cloudburst we drove through, toward Arecibo. Later that evening Greg invited us to dinner at Aguaviva, an upscale restaurant in Old San Juan, to review our travels and our trip, which was ending the next day.

So, what was the point of this story? Well, while still writing it, an event occurred which suggested a theme. I was at the Los Angeles Religious Education Congress in Anaheim when I attended a session given by Fr. Ronald Rolheiser. The presentation bore the intimidating title of Moral Loneliness in Our Lives and Ministry: The Deeper Reality Beneath Our Longing for a Soul Mate, but it was during a “spiritual riff” that I made my connection between lifelong friends and Puerto Rico. Rolheiser started with St. Augustine’s quote, “You have made us for yourself, Oh Lord, and our hearts are restless, until they rest in You”, as an explanation for loneliness. Then he elaborated with a meandering journey through biblical stories, legends, and archetypal myths that hinted at the idea that we are in the Second Act of a 3-part drama. Act One was our original union with God and subsequent departure; the Second is our birth and quest through life, searching to recover that sacred union; and the Last Act is the soul’s return and homecoming after death. That is our Faith – that is our Christian belief. Rolheiser suggested that this archetypal drama has been revealed in myth, mysticism, and Catholic tradition. During our lives on earth, we actively seek love, union, and the soulful relationships that hearken back to our existence before birth, when we knew the eternal union with God. Church is one of those unifying relationships, as is marriage, family, and, equally important, lifelong friends.

Thoughts of aging, illness, and death did intrude at various times in Puerto Rico with Greg and John, especially on our last day there, when we finally made time to visit the beach and seashore of San Juan before departing. I had insisted that we couldn’t leave the island until we actually walked along its beaches and took photographs of the Atlantic Ocean. It was during those moments, moments of joy and laughter with two old friends who have shared so many other trips, secrets, and memories, that those thoughts occurred. These crazy and impulsive trips, with their gestalt moments, were unique experiences that no one else knew, shared, or could even imagine. These would be the stories that we tell each other, and argue over, as our memories fade and details become more and more hazy. When these friends die, those memories will be gone forever, and I will be lonelier because of it. This isolation, with the snuffing out of shared memories and the darkening of the past, was what Dr. Greaney bemoaned when he told me that all his friends from medical school, World War II, and his practice were dead. As they died, thier shared memories were also buried, and his children would eventually cease retelling them. In those moments with John and Greg, I realized that this life can end in an instant, or be unbearably drawn out through a long-suffering illness. That was life. And yet, thoughts of isolation, illness, and even the dying process, are dispelled when we are in joyous union with loved ones and friends. That is what happened in Puerto Rico. For 5 days we three friends were together in a blissful paradise – three amigos viejos, without jobs, wives, or families – joyfully at play in the tropical cities, beaches, rainforests, and mountains of Puerto Rico.

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Jan. 17th, 2016

The Irish Saga; or Do You Love an Apple?

Do you love an apple? Do you love a pear?
Do you love a laddie with curly black hair?
Yes, I love him. I cannot deny him.
I will be with him wherever he goes.

Before I got married I wore a black shawl
But now that I’m married, I wear bugger-all.
Still, I love him. I cannot deny him.
I will be with him wherever he goes.

(Still I Love Him, or Do You Love an Apple? – traditional Irish folksong)

I had this story roughly formatted in my head at 2 o’clock in the morning on the day we were finally leaving Dublin for home. That’s when it first occurred to me that I wasn’t the hero of this story. Yes, I was finally out of St. James Hospital after 4 ½ days. Yes, I had spent three nights in a public urology ward trying to ignore the moans, groans, and urgent, nightmarish pleas of a 90-year old ward mate named Sean. Yes, I had suffered the abdominal pressures and discomforts of a 3-pronged urinary catheter for a three-day flushing, irrigating, and flowing process. Yes, there were moments of pain, scary panic, and confused uncertainty, but I was finally out of the hospital, having just experienced a final enjoyable day and a half in Dublin with my Irish-American wife, Kathleen Mavourneen. But I am not the hero of this story.

So, on that restless night and morning of our last day in Ireland, when I couldn’t sleep, one episode, one particular scene came to mind. It had occurred five days prior, on Thursday, New Year’s Eve at 7:00 a.m. Kathy and I were in bed, lying side by side, staring at the ceiling of the hotel room. We had spent the previous day at the Emergency Room of St. James Hospital where I had been fitted with a catheter, given two portable bags, a prescription, and released. Now I was lying in bed, tense and alert, waiting to hold my breath and bear down at the next spasm of screaming pain. The catheter tube, instead of relieving the pain and releasing the pressure, was causing it by blocking the passage of a dark, reddish substance that looked like clotted blood, and forcing it around the tube. I had been up and down all night, trying to relieve the pain and pressure by standing in the bathroom, hoping that the catheter would work better in a vertical position. When I succeeded in reducing the pain, I would clean up the blood and spotting I left, hoping that Kathy wouldn’t suspect anything was wrong. That’s when I heard the first strangled sob in bed – then another, and then another. Kathy was crying, struggling not to, and failing miserably.
“I don’t know what to do,” she wept, knowing that something was wrong with me. “Should we cancel the trip and get you home? Should we go to Galway? I don’t know what’s the right thing to do”.
I looked over, seeking to console her, to reassure her that I was fine and everything was all right. But all I could do was reach across the wide expanse between us and grab her hand.
“Neither do I, honey”, I confessed in a strangled voice. “Neither do I.” I looked up at the ceiling and realized that Kathy was weeping my tears, and crying all my fears and uncertainties with her sobs. She was doing what I could not, because I believed I had to be strong, and stoic. What I couldn’t accept was that I was pretending and in denial. I really felt as scared and frightened as Kathleen.

Now Kathy, as a former principal and current assistant superintendent, is a professional crisis manager and leader (as I was until I retired from school administration 6 years ago). She deals with crisis every day, and helps other principals to solve theirs. But this was different. We did not have all the facts and we were in a foreign country, thousands of miles from home, without the usual means of contacting resources, colleagues, friends, and family that we rely upon for solace, advice, and assistance. We were alone and looking at an untenable situation that had me paralyzed with pain and confusion – and Kathy with indecision. It was only as I tightened my grasp on Kathy’s hand as her crying subsided that I somehow realized that we would get through this – and we would do it together. But we first had to put away the fiction that the pain and discomfort I was in was only a minor medical hiccup that would not disrupt our planned trip in Ireland. Something was broken, and I had to be fixed.

At this point, let me assure you that you can relax. I’m not going to burden you with too many details or medical facts about my health and treatment in this saga. Suffice it to say that after the funeral of Kathy’s father, the Doctor, we decided to travel to Ireland to celebrate our 40th Wedding Anniversary. As the departure date approached, and more and more travel and accommodation issues were dealt with, one unexpected event occurred. The blood work from my annual medical checkup revealed a higher that normal rise in my PSA (Prostate-specific antigen) level. That triggered a referral to a Urology specialist who conducted the next level of screening, which resulted in another high reading, indicating a “possibility” of cancer. This then led to a prostate biopsy to eliminate all likelihood. Rather than postponing the biopsy until after the trip (which we probably should have done), we decided to expedite it and have the cancer issue resolved as soon as possible. The biopsy, an uncomfortable and painful procedure was completed 7 days before we left for Ireland. Although there was some urinary spotting for a while, the follow-up protocol simply called for a period of antibiotic medication, plenty of hydration, and no intensive lifting or abdominal exertion. By the time we left I felt perfectly healthy and normal. After a remarkably comfortable 10-hour flight in Club-class seats on British Airways, with an Aer Lingus shuttle from London to Ireland, we arrived in Dublin on Monday night, December 28.

We were staying at O’Callaghan’s Hotel on St. Stephen’s Green, a central park in the city, conveniently close to Grafton Street, Dublin’s swankiest shopping area. A break in the rain gave the streets around us, still festooned with Christmas lights and decorations, a magical glow and shimmer. Kathy and I took advantage of the weather to drop our packing and start exploring and dining right away. I’ve mentioned in previous blogs what a joy it is traveling with Kathy. We share the same sense of wonder and excitement when walking, riding, and seeing new sights. Kathy becomes giddy and child-like with joy at seeing new places, and historical locales. The streets, the people, the color, architecture, and human interactions mixed with her knowledge of the cultural and historical past to make every scene and encounter a heightened one. That first evening, dining at Pacino’s and walking up and down Grafton Street in the misting rain only whet our appetites for what was to come next in Dublin, then on to Galway, Ballyvaughan, and Shannon.

Looking back at our first full day in Dublin, we probably over did it. A break in the weather gave us a cool and cloudy day, free from rain, so we were up and out at first light (8:30 a.m., with the sun setting at barely 4:30 p.m.). Starting from Starbucks on Chatham Street, across from Sheehan’s Pub, we quickly purchased new SIM cards for our phones and we walked through and around Grafton Street to Trinity College. Unfortunately, while the grounds of this hallowed home to Oscar Wilde, Jonathan Swift, Edmund Burke, and V.M. Synge, were open to the public, the university was on holiday, and the Old Library, which housed the Book of Kells, was closed. So we continued onward, crossing the River Liffey, changing dollars to Euros, shopping, and exploring the O’Connell Street District. I photographed the historic General Post Office, the Abbey Theatre, the Custom House, and posed for a picture at a statue of the famous native Dubliner, James Joyce. Eventually we re-crossed the Liffey and made our way to the Temple Bar District for lunch, and ended the cloudy and darkening day at Dublin Castle. That night, the trip we had planned for so long, with all its elaborate itinerary and arrangements, fell apart when my prostate betrayed me and I fell victim to the strain I had placed on it with all the lifting, lugging, and walking over the past two days.

I believe there are few male tortures worse than urinary blockage and streaming pain. I experienced it once before, many years ago, when I came down with a urinary infection, and again on December 30th, our second full day in Dublin. What made this occasion different was what little stream I managed to urinate was blood red in color and viscous, like scabbed blood. I had produced spotted drops of blood after the biopsy, but that spotting had eventually dissipated over time. What I was painfully trying to produce on Wednesday was more than spotted blood. However, believe it or not, worse than the pain I experienced, was the paralyzing fear that this inconvenient development was going to ruin our long-imagined, long-planned trip – and worse, delay our departure home. So I went through a long process of denial and subterfuge, hoping my condition would somehow resolve itself. I moved slowly and made as little noise as possible when leaving the bed for the bathroom, hiding my soiled underwear, and cleaning up whatever drops of blood I left. Then I’d lie to Kathy when she awakened to ask, in a worried voice, “Is everything okay?” The subterfuge was exposed when she finally followed me into the bathroom and saw what was taking me so long. Seeing myself, finally, through her eyes, I couldn’t continue deluding myself any longer. I needed further medical interventions.

I pride myself on being calm and level headed in crisis situations, not afraid to question or challenge unclear or confusing information. The fallacy to this conceit is exposed when I find myself dealing with problems outside my area of knowledge. Both the triage nurse and the ER doctor correctly diagnosed my condition as a post-biopsy complication and blockage (which we suspected), and explained the various urinary treatments and catheters available. Yet, both the ER doctor and the urologist, who was called in to review the diagnosis and treatment, opted for the most optimistic prognosis, and least disruptive measures to our tourist plans. Despite my pain and description of the blockage, I was fitted with a regular sized, two-way Foley catheter to relieve the obstruction, and released with extra traveling bags and a prescription for antibiotics. I was never given clear or comprehensible instructions or explanation of how the catheter and bags fit, worked, and were cleaned and managed. I never made it past the lobby. A stop in the restroom showed me that the catheter was not relieving the blockage pain, and that clots were working their way around the tubing. Upon our return to the ER, the urologist dismissed my discomfort as temporary bruising from the catheter insertion, and prescribed painkillers and muscle relaxants to go along with the antibiotics. There we were – two intelligent, assertive professional leaders, sitting passively quiet, as we were told what we wanted to believe and not what I was actually feeling. Once the painkillers took effect we left St. James Hospital and returned to our hotel where I went promptly to bed, with the catheter dangling by my bedside. Left hanging were all the questions and issues that Kathy and I had not addressed. Should we cancel the trip? Was I able to travel by train to Galway, and then by car to Ballyvaughn and Shannon? Should we call someone? Who can help? I took the cowardly path and concentrated on feeling better and becoming strong enough to travel in two days. Kathy was left with all the unanswered questions, an invalid husband, and no immediate access to help, advice, or support. It was a scary time.

That night and morning was a repeat of the previous one, only this time I was tethered to a catheter bag. I was constantly leaving the bed in hopes of relieving my inability to stream urine. Closer inspection showed that I was expelling little pieces of clotted blood around the tubing, and this, along with the urgent need to pee, was causing the pain. It was during one of the momentary respites, as I lay in bed next to Kathy, that I heard her crying. Paradoxically, those tears of hopelessness and despair at our situation finally released us from the paralysis of denial and indecision. We started talking and refocusing on the immediate problem at hand, and identifying the steps to address it assertively. First, get me back to the hospital and correctly treated. Once I was well and fit, we would return home. But our trip, as it was originally planned, was over. From that point on all interactions with medical personnel were to be critically questioned, repeated, understood, and analyzed for reasonableness. We were finally on the right track, breathing normally, calm, and acting in unison. The rest was easy.

So, how did I enjoy Ireland? Oddly enough, I enjoyed this trip very much. Even the unexpected medical interlude was a uniquely memorable experience. I love the city of Dublin. It contains every ingredient that goes into a world-class, historical, and cultural banquet – and it is a personal and “walkable” feast. I would have to walk every foot of Dublin before I could feel halfway satisfied or knowledgeable about it. Like Mexico City, New York, or London, one cannot travel 10 yards without bumping into some historical, artistic, or cultural monument, building, statue, or event. Every walk or stroll is an adventure through time, every street a chapter of Irish history. Since I only had two full days to explore the city, we also took advantage of the Hop-On, Hop-Off Bus Tour of the city the day before we left, and saw the whole sweep and scope of this pedestrian city. Our only lengthy stop that day was at the famous Guinness Storehouse and Brewery, where I learned the history of this iconic Irish stout, poured my own pint, and marveled at the 360° expanse of Dublin from the rooftop Gravity Bar on a clear and occasionally, sunny day.

Coming to Dublin was also the completion of my literary Hadj – my pilgrimage to the Mecca of Irish literature that spawned and nurtured such universally recognized literary giants as Oscar Wilde, W.B. Yeats, and Samuel Beckett. This was the city, and these were the streets that the author of Ulysses strode and wrote about in Dubliners, Finnegan’s Wake, and The Dead, and the home of the University College Dublin, which he attended, across the street from St. Stephen’s Green (now Newman University Church). My moment of supreme satisfaction came when I posed next to the statue of James Joyce on O’Connell Street, near the Abbey Theatre. Our trip could have ended right and there and I would have been satisfied. And it almost did. But beyond the cultural and historical ambience of the city, I really had no real chance to talk with, interact, or observe the customs and the Dubliners who inhabited this city until I moved into the Donal Hollywood Ward of St. James Hospital for a 4-day, three night stay.

It was there that I experienced the Irish dining schedule first hand. The Irish eat breakfast, lunch, and “tea” at approximately 8:00 – 9:00 a.m., 12:00 – 1:00 p.m., and 4:30 – 5:00 p.m. Prior to my hospital menu, Kathy and I stuck more or less with our American gastronomic routine: chai latte/coffee and rolls at 9-ish; soup, sandwiches, or fish and chips at 1-ish; and a larger dinner at 7-ish. Guinness was my staple beverage, except for breakfast. In the Hollywood Ward, the menu was fixed with cereal or “porridge” with tea for breakfast; well-done steak or chicken with potatoes, vegetables, and bread (with tea) for lunch; and an egg omelet or fish for “tea”, with coffee or tea. The meals were surprisingly tasty (although I must confess that my smelling and tasting senses are notoriously suspect). I found the Irish culinary schedule very practical and similar to that of Mexico and most Hispanic countries, with the major meal, or cena, in the middle of the day, with a light merienda (or snack) in the late afternoon or at sunset.

St. James Hospital’s approach seemed different from the few American hospitals I have observed, in its humane and informal responses to the personal preferences of its patients. There did not seem to be any strict rules, or regimentation of procedures. Hospital gowns were optional, menu items were variable and could be waived, and the staff was remarkably accommodating. Visitors could come almost anytime, and the ambulatory movement of patients was encouraged. My interactions with the two young and very professional attending urologists who oversaw my treatment and recovery, Dr. Shakhil and Dr. Louise, were positive and informative. They were patient with my questions and requests for clarification, and although completely sympathetic to my desire to be free of the catheter and hospital, they were not going to release me until I was fit and clear of bleeding or clotting. But the most charming aspect of the hospital was the nursing staff of the ward. While much of the general population I met in the stores and restaurants of Dublin were local and of international stock (Slavic immigrants were represented in great numbers), the nurses had the most Irish names, the deepest brogues, and used many colorful terms and phrases. Siobhan, Emer, Kate, and Ruth were the late night and day nurses who called me “Antonio” in the most charming fashion, and constantly used endearments like “darlin” and “luv” in addressing all the patients in the ward. They were young and efficient, and appeared to have emigrated to Dublin City from the South and West of Ireland. These were the beguiling Irish faces I saw, and the voices I heard daily. It was a surprisingly warm and friendly place to live and convalesce.

Even my fellow patients endeared themselves to me – especially Sean, the aging roommate on my right. As all of us in that ward, he was catheter-bound to a bag, but his age-driven (90+) complaints, and nighttime moaning and groaning almost drove me crazy the first night. He reminded me of Dr. Greaney in his last days, loudly complaining and stubbornly resistant to female directions, but who could become instantly charming and humorously engaging. He would joke with the nurses and visitors, and erupt into Irish songs at the most unexpected times. A simple adjustment of earplugs on the second night effectively moved him out of earshot and permitted much better sleep.

So, who was the hero of this tale? Me? Not even close. There are no heroes in this tale – but my wife, Kathleen was the crucial character who performed the most bravely, calmly, professionally, and compassionately. And she did it alone. I’ve learned many things watching Kathy over the years in her roles of lover, wife, mother, companion, Catholic schoolteacher and leader, friend, sister, and daughter. She works hard at maintaining loving relationships to which she can give, depend on, and call forth in times of crisis and fear. Kathy provides solace, care, and comfort to family, siblings, and friends, and she also calls it up when needed. In Ireland, I think she found herself with an incapacitated husband and traveling companion, and cut off from immediate communication from family or friends. We were both initially paralyzed by our situation – but Kathy’s tears set us free. Once I was back under the care of a competent urologist, concentrating on getting well, Kathy took off. She organized the necessary steps and procedures that had to be done. She made the calls, cancelled the reservations, changed the traveling arrangements, re-booked and extended our stay at O’Callaghan’s, and restructured our flights home. As Barry Fitzgerald (Michaleen) of the Quiet Man might say, “She was 'HOMERIC!'” My only apprehensions were a speedy recovery and hoping that Kathy was getting out of the hotel, seeing the sights, and gaining more impressions of this wonderful city and its people. I learned later that once the heavy lifting was done, and clear communication was reestablished with siblings and friends, Kathy did get a chance to get out and about. She enjoyed the sights of St. Stephen’s Green and park, discovered Newman University Church (across the street from the Green), visited and posed by the Christmas tree of the historic Shelbourne Hotel, and listened to the nostalgic and tragic Irish ballads at O’Donoghue’s Bar, where many great musicians come to play. Ultimately, I believe she found her own personal Dublin, as I did mine.

Over dinner, on our last evening in Dublin City, after spending the day on the Hop-on Hop-off bus tour, we exchanged rings for the second time in our marriage. Originally, this trip had been planned to celebrate our 40th Wedding Anniversary, commemorating that Saturday morning in August when we set forth on our voyage of unified discovery. This trip had not come off as expected, but the events that occurred, and our reactions to them, hinted at a new revelation. On this January night we exchanged Claddagh rings to indicate that we had come to a new understanding of our evolving marriage. The Claddagh ring is a traditional Irish ring that represents love, loyalty, and friendship. The design and customs associated with this ring are said to have originated in the Irish fishing village of Claddagh, located outside the old city wall of Galway. The hands on the ring represent friendship, the heart – love, and the crown – loyalty. Love, loyalty, and friendship: three stages of evolution that I believe Kathy and I have reached in our marriage. Our trip to Dublin certainly brought out each. I’m not a wearer of rings. I made my only exception when I married Kathleen in 1975 and accepted a gold wedding band on my left ring finger. I made my second in Dublin when she placed the silver Claddagh ring on my right ring finger. Although we traveled a long way, and suffered a mild detour to our plans, the evening ceremony was a fitting way for two Americans, children of different ancestral lands and traditions to renew their love and hope for a long, long, and healthy life together. Sláinte!

Jan. 8th, 2016

The Thinker

The House Song

This house goes on sale every Wednesday morning,
And taken off the market in the afternoon.
You can buy a piece of it if you want to.
It’s been good to me, if it’s been good for you.

Take the grand look now the fire is burning.
Is that your reflection on the wall?
I can show you this room and some others,
If you came to see the house at all?

Careful up the stairs, a few are missing.
I haven’t had the time to make repairs.
First step is the hardest one to master.
Last one I’m not really sure is there.

This room here once had childish laughter,
And I come back to hear it now and again.
I can’t say that I’m certain what you’re after,
But in this room, a part of you will remain.
(The House Song: Paul Stookey – 1965)

Finding a unifying thread about two cross-country flights and a trip through Georgia and South Carolina turned out to be a daunting task. The seven days we spent there were a flurry of emotions, images, and experiences: the miseries of TSA checkpoints; the discomforts of minimalist air travel; the excitement of a new city and state with endless sights and possibilities; and the ease of renewing old friendships. It seemed a matter of too much done and too little space to record it all. In brief, Kathy and I traveled to Atlanta, so she could attend the Catholic Leadership Summit hosted by the National Catholic Education Association (NCEA). We spent 3 days in that city, with Kathy, for the most part, attending workshops, meetings, and social dinners, while occasionally joining me on sightseeing adventures. At the conclusion of the conference, we rented a car and drove south to Bluffton, SC, to visit for three days with Ken and Kathy Horton, long-time family friends (see tag: Hortons) who had built a home and retired to Belfair Golf Plantation six years ago. We took our time driving back to Atlanta, stopping at Milledgeville and visiting the nearby sights. Early morning, on October 25th, we again experienced the miseries of modern air travel, but thankfully, magically arrived home at 11:00 am, three hours after leaving Atlanta at 9:00 am. That was our trip in one paragraph.

However, the question that has daunted me since returning is, what specific experiences on this trip were the most memorable or meaningful? There were so many scenes I could describe: riding the MARTA metro uptown to the Arts Center and walking down Peachtree Street photographing countless sights and places; taking solitary walks through Centennial Park, the Coca Cola museum, and the National Center for Civil Rights; and visiting the Carter Presidential Library and the Historic Oakland Cemetery with Kathy. Finally, after weeks and weeks of restless reflection and rewrites, I came to the surprising conclusion that what really stood out from the trip were three houses – the Margret Mitchell House on Peachtree Street in Atlanta, the Horton Home on Lady Slipper Island Drive in Bluffton, and Andalusia, the Flannery O’Connor Farm outside of Milledgeville. Three houses, with three separate stories, but all somehow unified in their impact on me. Strange…

To be honest, finding the Mitchell House was purely accidental. My initial explorations of the MARTA (Atlanta’s metro, the Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority) deposited me at the Arts Center Station on N. Peachtree Street. Not wanting to simply make a return trip traveling underground, I decided to walk down Peachtree, paralleling the metro line back to the main hub at Five Points Station. On this southern route, I stumbled across the beautifully maintained, and impressive, Mitchell House near Crescent Avenue. I had read Margret Mitchell’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel in high school, after seeing the film adaptation. At first I was captivated by the Clark Gable and Vivien Leigh version, and naively believed that the movie and the book were authentic representations of the South, the Civil War, and Reconstruction. I was freed from these romantic delusions in college when I learned that both the book and the film perpetuated the heroic myth of the underdog South’s valiant struggle against the tyranny of the Federal government, their rebellion for State’s Rights, and their continued oppression during Reconstruction. Mitchell, and especially the film, failed to deal with the immorality of slavery, the social inequities created by a plantation economy on the South, and the futile war that was fought and lost attempting to perpetuate both. However, despite my college prejudice about the book and movie, I walked away from the house with a totally different feeling about Margret Mitchell and her work.

First of all, calling the residence “the Mitchell House” is a grandiose misnomer. Margret and her second husband, John Marsh, simply rented one of three flats at the Crescent Avenue Apartment House, as it was originally named. It was there, recuperating from an ankle injury, and with the encouragement of her husband, that she typed her only published novel, Gone With the Wind in 1937. The book was clearly a romanticized version of the antebellum South, based on the stories Margaret heard as a child from her grandmother, and from the revisionist histories written by Southern historians after Reconstruction. The book was never meant to be an academically sound, historical treatise, but rather a forerunner of the bodice-ripping, romantic novels that became popular in the late 20th Century. I ended my tour through the converted apartment house with a new attitude toward Mitchell – feeling much more sympathetic toward this writer who grew up in wealth and social prominence, only to flounder in an abusive first marriage which required her to work for a living as a reporter and journalist. Her second act came with her marriage to John Marsh and his encouragement to pen a book based on her childhood memories and college writings. Their stay at the Crescent Avenue Apartment House changed their lives forever.

After three days of hotel rooms and meeting halls, except for a rare sightseeing excursion, Kathy was anxious to get some fresh air and enjoy a respite with Kathy and Ken. She was confident that staying at their beautiful home in Belfair Plantation would provide the perfect opportunity for reconnecting and renewing our 35-year old friendship. So on Wednesday, we left Atlanta in a rented car and drove five hours down US Interstates 75 and 16 through Georgia to Bluffton, South Carolina. We had one objective – getting to the Horton house on Lady Slipper Island Drive as quickly as possible and relaxing. Luckily these two major highways skirt all major cities and towns, so we were not tempted to stop and explore Macon or Savannah. It was just one, long, boring drive along a forest-lined highway, reading signs and staring at road kill, with only two stops at rural gas stations to use the restrooms.

I always think of Kathy and Ken in relation to their houses. We always visited them at home, with the rare exception of birthdays at McDonalds or Chucky Cheese. They would sometimes reciprocate and visit us, but (not counting their annual Christmas Adam Party) 8 times out of 10 we were at their house on a Friday night, with Ken preparing cocktails, grilling burgers and dogs, or cooking spaghetti. Their first home was a rambling two-story, Walton Family-type structure on Hatteras Ave in Tarzana, with a seemingly endless backyard lot with a pool where the kids could lose themselves for hours. Their second, and final California house was a single floor, ranch-style home in Hidden Hills, with a small lower horse pasture and stable, and a backyard that started with a pool and extended up a vast hillside. Those were the homes their children and ours grew up and played in and visited, until they all went to college and left. In 2010, when the Horton’s’ decided to retire, they left the state and took up residence in a new house they had planned and built in South Carolina.

Visiting Kathy and Ken’s home overlooking the marshy lowlands of the Harbor River always calls up feelings of déjà vu, like recalling a vista you’ve seen a long, long time ago, but couldn’t remember exactly where. Only in this case it was trying to remember an image or scene from countless movies in the South: The Great Santini (1979), The Prince of Tides (1991), The Legend of Bagger Vance (2000), and especially The Big Chill (1983). All of them depicted the red and gold coastal marshlands, tidal swamps, and estuaries of the “Low country” of South Carolina, but The Big Chill also inserted the nostalgia of aging college friends in new homes and locales, after the passage of time. That’s how I felt about Kathy and Ken in 2010, on our first visit to South Carolina, and again this time – standing on their back porch and gazing out at the estuary reeds and marshlands of the Harbor River in the mornings, mid-afternoons, and sunsets. We had left so many memories behind, in old homes, in old neighborhoods, but we stayed connected. This sense of comfort is also reinforced when we manage to see their three children, Marshall, and the twins, Kate and Andrea in their homes, in different parts of the country.

During this visit we never strayed too far from Belfair, with amble opportunities for Kathy and Kathy to chat and catch up on their news while Ken and I walked Jake their dog and played some golf. Our one big excursion was an afternoon on the May River, trying our hand at dockside crabbin’ & fishin’ with Kathy and Ken, and then boatin’ with their son Marshall, and his dog, Cody. On this trip I also played a few rounds of golf with Ken. On previous walks and cart rides around his home I’d been impressed by the coastal beauty of the grounds, fairways, and greens of the two courses on this “golf plantation”, but I had never felt sufficiently skilled to play on them. Now, after 5 years of golfing with friends on various public and private courses in Southern California and Baja, I felt confident enough to join Kenny for 9 or 10 holes. It was an enjoyable experience, with a lot of side talk and Ken pointing out some techniques to strengthen my “short game”. I also got a chance to demonstrate my golfing prowess to my wife, who had never seen me play.

Every evening of our 3-night stay found us lounging on the back porch of the house at sunset, watching the reddish-gold gloaming of the sky over the river and marshes, enjoying Kenny’s cocktails. There we would review the day’s events and activities, plan the next day’s agenda, and talk about our adult children, their spouses, and infants. That’s how I will always remember Belfair – sitting with the Horton’s on their back porch couches, with the sun fading into a golden haze. On Friday we drove back to Atlanta. This was an open-ended excursion, with our only intention being to take a route that would lead us to Milledgeville. We were in no particular hurry and had no idea what we might find there. Our only reason for choosing Milledgeville was curiosity to see the town and the nearby family farm where the American, female author, Flannery O’Connor lived until her death in 1964.

The route we took from Savannah on US Hwy 441 finally got us off the Interstate and allowed us to see the real Georgian countryside, with its rolling, green farmlands, red clay soil, and rural towns. The big surprise was the city of Milledgeville. I had expected to see one more provincial town like the ones we’d passed along the way (Dublin, Irwinton, McIntyre, and Midway-Hardwick), but Milledgeville was far from rural. It is the county seat of Baldwin County, with two colleges and a population of about 20,000. It served as the State Capitol from 1804 to 1868, and came across as a quaint, historic “college town”, with all the cultural and commercial amenities of a modern city. On our arrival on October 24, we drove right into the Main Square, which was hosting Family Day at Georgia College and State University, the college Flannery O’Connor attended under a different name. The streets were filled with cars, families, and visitors, walking through and around the square, being escorted or guided by students or family members. It created a festive carnival atmosphere that livened our experience as we walked around, searching for “The Flannery O’Connor Room” in the College Library.

I became curious about Flannery O’Connor after listening to Kathy and our friend Bishop George Niederauer talking about her in relation to women authors and Catholic themes in American literature. Kathy had read O’Connor’s works in college, while taking a course in Catholic literature, and George had taught a similar class at St. John’s Seminary in Camarillo. Knowing nothing of this modern Southern writer, who was also a devout Catholic, I set about reading Kathy’s copy of Flannery: A Life of Flannery O’Connor, by Brad Gooch. It was a fascinating story of a seemingly mousey, non-descript Georgia girl, of Irish-Catholic upbringing, born in 1925, who graduated from a women’s college in Milledgeville, but whose desire to write compelled her to travel to the famous Iowa Writer’s Workshop for a MFA, where she attracted the artistic attention of its director and teachers. After graduation she lived in Connecticut and New York, where she published her first short stories and began the first of two novels, Wise Blood. In 1951, O’Connor was diagnosed with lupus, a deadly, debilitating disease, and subsequently returned to live with her mother at their ancestral farm, Andalusia, near Milledgeville, Georgia.

Escaping the hustle and bustle of Family Days, Andalusia, the O’Connor family dairy farm, was a retreat-like haven. Only 4 miles outside of Milledgeville on Hwy 441, the farm appears suddenly and unexpectedly, near a distractingly, busy commercial intersection. The only warning is a reed obscured white sign with purple trim on a hillside, announcing:
                                                                              HOME OF
                                                                        Flannery O’Connor

A red clay road, shaded by pine trees, wound us along a low-lying pond and a distant pasture, until we saw two white, wooden lounge chairs, under a tree, beckoning us toward a driveway next to the main house. Around the two-story, plantation-style home, we could see the vacant poultry and work sheds off to the left, and the abandoned milking and storage barns, beyond the backyard. This farm and nearby Milledgeville were the settings for many of O’Connor’s short stories. More than the Mitchell House, I was deeply affected by the tour through O’Connor’s home. It seemed to truly reflect the writer who lived and died there. The front porch was screened and overlooked the front yard, with its two lounge chairs guarding the road. I easily imagined a frail and weakening writer, having experienced the artistic and literary excitement of the Iowa Workshop and the New York publishing world, sitting in the waning sun with her mother, staring out at the empty road, searching for visitors and news from the world outside of Georgia.

Her brightly lit bedroom was on the first floor, close to the front door entrance. There, I spotted two braced, aluminum crutches, leaning side by side, as if placed just moments ago. They rested against an upright dresser, which served as a backstop to O’Connor’s worktable, holding an opened portable typewriter. It was a reminder of what must have been a 14-year struggle between artist and invalid, with her passion for writing being challenged by her progressively deteriorating and disabling disease. Despite the declining health, she stayed busy with her work and around the house, leaving feminine touches in many of the rooms and walls. She continued writing throughout her residence there, and maintained an active correspondence with contemporary writers and teachers until her death on August 3, 1964. O’Connor, who published two novels and 32 short stories during her lifetime, is now considered an important voice in American literature. She wrote in a Southern Gothic style, relying heavily on regional settings and grotesque characters, while reflecting her Catholic faith, and frequently examining questions of morality and ethics. Although expected to live only five years after her initial diagnosis of lupus, she managed 14, and died at the age of 39.

Our travels through South Carolina and Georgia ended at an airport hotel, a tram-ride away from the terminal in Atlanta. We took our time that evening at dinner, and talked about the trip, our visit with the Horton’s, and our impressions of Andalusia and Milledgeville. Later, back in our room, we fell asleep watching television and dreaming of a quick flight home.

Is it truly strange that after so many miles and so many new sights and locales, I should be most affected by three houses? Houses are the silent sentinels of our memories and lives. I feel that connection whenever I drive past our first house on Yarmouth Avenue, or visit my mom’s home in Venice. Those structures contain years and years of emotions and experiences, with their hidden stories of happiness, sadness, fears, and triumphs. I think it was our visit to Bluffton that set the tone for the trip. Visiting Kathy and Ken was the central event of our travels, and it influenced all our perceptions. It’s comforting to know that we can travel 2400 miles to a house in South Carolina and still feel like home.

Oct. 17th, 2015

Kathy & I

On My Mind

Other arms reach out to me.
Other eyes smile tenderly.
Still in peaceful dreams I see
The road leads back to you.

I said Georgia, oh Georgia,
No place I find.
Just an old sweet song
Keeps Georgia on my mind.
(Georgia on My Mind: Hoagy Carmichael & Stuart Gorrell – 1930)

The first time I visited the state of Georgia was to see the graduation of a family friend, Ed Killmond, in 1999. He attended SCAD, the Savannah College of Art and Design – a ubiquitous school of fine arts that was just as indefinable as the city that housed it. I fell in love with Savannah. That city was the closest I’ve ever come to a Brigadoon-like experience with a place. Savannah was a city out-of-time; a magical location that mixed a rich colonial and antebellum past with a laidback attitude toward the present and the future. It was a Southern city with Mediterranean appeal. Besides attending the commencement exercise, which featured an address by Nora Ephron, the talented author and film director of When Harry Met Sally, and Sleepless in Seattle, we spent all our time wandering through the cobbled streets and dockside quays, and walking from garden square to garden square. The city made such an impression on us, that Kathy and I made a point of re-visiting it in 2008, when we drove there from Hilton Head, South Carolina, after attending the wedding of another family friend, Kate Horton. There is only one problem in experiencing such a unique city like Savannah, it seemed completely disconnected from the State of Georgia and the rest of the American South.

Now, when I think of Georgia, I think of peaches, Ray Charles, and Atlanta; and I associate Atlanta with General Sherman’s “March to the Sea”, the famous novel and movie, Gone With the Wind, and the home of Coca Cola, Ted Turner, CNN, and Delta Airlines. However, except for deplaning and boarding airlines at its airport, I’ve never actually set foot in the city of Atlanta. So when Kathy mentioned the possibility of attending the Catholic Leadership Summit of the NCEA (National Catholic Educational Association) being held there, I lobbied mightily to go. I thought that this national conference would finally give us an opportunity to discover the Old and New South for the first time, and at its epicenter.

Our trip to Atlanta has been on our calendar for a few months now, but I have only recently gotten down to actually outlining an itinerary. Of course, Kathy’s ability to sightsee will be somewhat hampered by her attendance at the Summit. I, on the other hand, will be free to indulge myself in an orgy of tourist consumption. What I learned very quickly was that Atlanta, when contrasted against famous coastal cities like Savannah and Charleston, SC, is relatively new. It was established in 1837 at the intersection of two railroad lines, and it literally rose from the ashes of the Civil War to become a national center for commerce and innovation. I was also surprised to learn that it ranked as a “global”, “alpha”, or world-class city, like New York, London, Hong Kong, Paris, Chicago, San Francisco, and even Los Angeles. However, before Southerners get too carried away by this designation, I should point out that Atlanta was mentioned at the very end of the list.

I suppose this essay is more about my anticipation over the trip to Atlanta, rather that a finished report or critique of the city. At this point I’ve only read up on Atlanta and researched nearby towns and cities. I’ve created lists of places to visit, and outlined some general points of interest in Atlanta and parts of Georgia. I will mention only two of them here:

I dropped the city of Augusta from my “Must See” roster after learning that it was close to impossible to gain entrance into its exclusive “Home of the Masters Golf Tournament”. Although I was disappointed at first because I’d hoped to visit the Pro Shop there and purchase some souvenirs, I quickly found a “literary” substitute for this elitist golfing “mecca”. I decided on the little-known place called Milledgeville. Milledgeville is a town outside of Macon, GA, and it happens to be near the family farm of Flannery O’Connor, the noted Roman Catholic author who was a member of the Post-War generation of Southern writers that included Robert Penn Warren, John Crowe Ronson, and Andrew Lytle, who edited the Swanee Review. Flannery O’Connor was born in Savannah, GA, in 1925. After attending the Iowa Writers Workshop, she wrote two novels, Wise Blood and The Violent Bear It Away, and published two books of short stories, A Good Man is Hard to Find, and Everything That Rises Must Converge. Tragically, in 1951 she was diagnosed with Lupus Erythematosus, the degenerative disease that killed her father when she was 15 years old, and she was forced to retire to her family farm in Milledgeville, called Andalusia, until her death in 1964. Upon reflection, I was glad that our prohibition from entering the hallowed halls of the Augusta National Golf Club would allow us to pay homage to a distinguished American author who wrote on Roman Catholic themes.

The last place I added was Roswell. No trip to Atlanta would be complete without seeing an antebellum plantation like Tara, in Gone With the Wind. But since Tara was fictional, another had to be found. Roswell fit the bill. Roswell is a town just outside of Atlanta that boasts three outstanding examples of antebellum architecture. Archibald Smith Plantation is the very unromantically named plantation, and two mansions, Barrington Hall and Bulloch Hall, join it in Roswell.  All in all, Georgia should prove to be a cornucopia of historical, cultural, educational, and commercial sites and locales. However, what I see, and the places I visit, would be best reported after they are experienced. So for the time being, Georgia will have to remain “an old sweet song” until I drive its highways and travel its streets and roads to see for myself. I’ll let you know in a few weeks.


Oct. 9th, 2015

James Joyce

Home Again

I’ll take you home again, Kathleen,
Across the ocean wild and wide,
To where your heart has ever been
Since you were first my bonnie bride.

Oh! I will take you back, Kathleen,
To where your heart will feel no pain.
And when the fields are fresh and green
I’ll take you to your home again!

To that home beyond the sea
My Kathleen shall again return.
And when thy old friends welcome thee
Thy loving heart will cease to yearn
Where laughs the little silver stream
Beside your mother’s humble cot,
And brightest rays of sunshine gleam.
There all your grief will be forgot.
(I’ll Take You Home Again, Kathleen: Thomas P. Westendorf – 1875)

Kathy and I have now DEFINITELY decided to celebrate our 40th Wedding Anniversary with a trip to Ireland at the end of December. This has been an on-again, off-again idea over the last two years, influenced in no small way by the age and declining health of Kathy’s father, The Doctor. But during this last vacation after the Doctor’s funeral and burial, we finally decided to do it. Not so strangely (now that I dwell on the conversation), when I told my 90 year-old mother of this decision she reacted quite ambivalently:
“Ay, que bueno, Tony! Pero cuando van a ir a España?” (“Oh, that’s great, Tony! But when are you going to Spain?)
My mother’s question/opinion caught me by surprise, because I’d never been quizzed about wanting to go to Ireland with Kathy, or why visiting the Emerald Isle would take precedence over Spain. The first and obvious reason for going to Ireland was reciprocity. Ireland was the ancestral home of both of Kathy’s parents, and I had already taken her and my son Tony to Mexico in December of 1979 to introduce them to my mother’s family living in and around Mexico City. While there, we visited aunts, uncles, and cousins, and went to museums, the pyramids, and the bullfights. There was an imperative to show them the riches and wealth of Mexico’s history, culture, and arts. Kathy now wanted to show me see the history, culture, art, and geography of her ancestral home. Besides, although Spain is a place I wouldn’t mind visiting some day, it doesn’t rate as my “ancestral home” (unless I wished to consider myself Spanish – which my mother and some of her brothers and sisters do). However, the more I pondered my mother’s question, the more I realized that my wish to see Ireland went deeper than mere “payback” sentiment. In fact, now that we were committed to going, I realized that I always harbored a secret desire to see Ireland, and this desire was fueled by many factors – religion, themes of oppression and resistance, literature, and family.

As far as I’m concerned, being raised Catholic in Cardinal James McIntyre’s Archdiocese of Los Angeles in the 1950’s and 60’s was to be catechized as an Irish Catholic. I belonged to Catholic parishes and went to Catholic schools with many Irish American pastors, priests, brothers, and nuns, who indoctrinated us in an ethnically curious Catholicism. We celebrated St. Patrick’s Day as a religious holy day and a school holiday. We memorized Irish folksongs along with American standards in music class, and we prayed for the Pope, the Conversion of Russia, and the Fighting Irish every Friday before leaving school for the weekend. We were also encouraged to watch an “approved list” of Catholic films with its pantheon of Irish-American stars: Bing Crosby in Going My Way and The Bells of St. Mary’s; Pat O’Brien in Knute Rockne, All-American, and Angels with Dirty Faces; and Mickey Rooney and Spencer Tracy in Boys Town. I identified with these stories and the characters they showcased, and our common religion preserved that relationship. This spiritual baptism into Irish-Catholicism in the 50’s was confirmed during the Kennedy presidential campaign of 1960 and cemented in college with my special fondness for Irish-themed movies and literature.

I think John Fitzgerald Kennedy was the first Democrat my father ever admitted voting for (and my mother openly preferred). My parents were staunch Republicans who were covertly persuaded to support Kennedy because he was Catholic. Of course the nuns in my school made no bones about it – Kennedy, an Irish Catholic, and Catholicism were synonymous. I became a Kennedy Democrat at the age of 12, and despite my father’s influence and my brief infatuation with Goldwater’s libertarianism in 1964, I marched my Kennedy optimism and liberalism into college in 1966. It was there that my Irish-Catholic spirit was awakened anew with my discovery and appreciation of John Ford and his movies. At first, considering him only the John Wayne-director who filmed Stagecoach in 1939, I ultimately learned to value him for the Irish themes and stories he included in many of his films. Some movies were overtly Irish, and became classics, like The Informer and The Quiet Man, but more were subtly themed, like his U.S. Calvary Trilogy (Fort Apache, She Wore A Yellow Ribbon, and Rio Grande), The Grapes of Wrath, and How Green Was My Valley. These movies portrayed heroism, humor, and sacrifice in the face of oppression, exploitation, and greed. These were situations that all Catholics and other ethnic minorities in America faced and struggled with. It was also during these college years that I made two more connections with Ireland and Catholicism – literature and James Joyce.

I discovered James Joyce in an English Literature survey course during my sophomore year at UCLA. The Norton Anthology we used included a couple of his short stories, and the professor added Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man to the Required Reading List. Portrait was an excellent introduction to Anglo-Irish literature, Joyce, and the stream of consciousness style that he was developing. But more important for me, I made a lifelong connection with the protagonist, Stephen Dedalus, a young man struggling to liberate himself from the historical vestiges of British colonialism and prejudice, and from the stifling artistic repression of the Catholic Church in Ireland. His nightmarish chapter describing the tortures inflicted on young students during a religious retreat was reminiscent of the countless guilt-driven lectures and threatening admonitions I heard from priests, brothers, and nuns against pornography, masturbation, alcohol, and general sinfulness. While All-American Holden Caulfield sought liberation from his New England-Ivy League values and expectations, Irish-Catholic Stephen Dedalus sought freedom to pursue a life of artistic expression. I found him a much better person on whom to model myself. Joyce opened the door to a slew of Irish authors and poets who would fascinate me for years to come: Oscar Wilde, Liam O’Flaherty, George Bernard Shaw, Sean O’Casey, and William Yeats. By the time I finished college, however, my interest in Ireland and the Irish had waned to only a few annual observations – St. Patrick Day celebrations at Irish pubs with my friend Greg Ryan and the Riley brothers, and cheering for Notre Dame football against USC. Dealing with the draft, enlisting in the Air Force, and hanging out with friends took up most of my time until my father’s death released me from military service and set me on a path to teaching. That route reached a crossroad, however, when teacher friends introduced me to Kathleen Mavourneen Greaney and I met her Irish Catholic family.

I had considered my parents’ families as unequaled in their nationalistic pride and passion for their ethnic and cultural heritage. I grew up in an environment where Spanish was spoken by everyone, Mexican Mariachi and bolero songs and music were played all day, and Mexican history, art, and culture were appreciated and esteemed by all. I definitely met their match with the Irish pride of Kathy’s parents, Edward Michael Greaney and Mary Cavanaugh. As early as my first meeting with the Doctor, he proudly proclaimed his staunch Irish Catholicism, related impassioned stories of dealing with the anti-Irish prejudices and biases in the New England of his youth, and explained how an ethnic quota system defined the number of Jews and Irish Catholics who were allowed to attend respectable medical schools. In a much nicer tone and through her stories and sayings, Mary communicated the Irish values, traditions, and superstitions that were a part of Irish-American life in the early 1900’s. Meeting the Irish-Catholic Greaneys gave me a unique perspective from which to compare my own ethnic, cultural, and national pride. I recognized our commonalities and prized and appreciated them both. Eventually I would become part of the Irish-American family with the birth of my son and daughter.

Whew, that was a long meandering road to explaining my reasons for wanting to go to Ireland! Perhaps it serves as a metaphor for the evolution of my feelings about Ireland over time – from a youthful fascination with Catholic rituals that were Irish accented and shaded in emerald hues, an intellectual appreciation of Irish-themed film and literature, and finally to my being welcomed into the Greaney family. Putting intellect aside and thinking personally and emotionally, what ultimately won me over to Ireland, the Irish, and the uniqueness of Irish Americans were the births of my son and daughter, Tony and Teresa. No amount of Irish Catholicism, literature, or history, can trump the fact that my son and daughter are physical descendents of Ireland and Mexico – two very special countries, histories, and cultures. They are very open, proud, and verbal about their Old and New World roots. In fact, they, along with their other 3 Irish/Mexican-American cousins (Maria Teresa Apablasa, and Marisa and Eduardo Samaniego), created their own ethnic designation for themselves. They are the “Irexicans” of the family. So honestly, I suppose I’m most curious to see the ancestral home of my wife and children, because they are my family, and I am a part of them. So I guess I’m going to Ireland because, in a way, I’m going home too.

Oct. 4th, 2015

Kid Dedalus

Sometimes We Cry

Sometimes we know, sometimes we don’t.
Sometimes we give, sometimes we won’t.
Sometimes we’re strong, sometimes we’re wrong.
Sometimes we cry.

Sometimes it’s bad when the going gets tough,
When we look in the mirror and we want to give up.
Sometimes we don’t even think we’ll try.
Sometimes we cry.

Well we’re gonna have to sit down and think it right through.
If we’re only human what more can we do?
The only thing to do is eat humble pie.
Sometimes we cry.

Before they put me in a jacket, and they take me away,
I’m not gonna fake it like Johnnie Ray.
Sometimes we live. Sometimes we die.
Sometimes we cry.
(Sometimes We Cry: Van Morrison – 1997)

The earliest and clearest image I have of Fausto Garcia is from a photo on the day of his wedding to my Aunt Jovita (Jay Jay) in 1953. He’s lounging on the lawn with one arm around Jay, a debonair smile on his lips, and a look of complete bliss. My twin siblings, Arthur and Stela, are also in the picture, along with our father, Tony, his sisters Helen and Lupe, and his brother Henry. Everyone is dressed in tuxedos or gowns, so they must have all been in the wedding party. Fausto looks the happiest.  What I remember most about Fausto is that everyone loved him. First, I think, because Jay was so happy with him. He was such a sweet, gentle, and even tempered man. I was never sure if Jay Jay’s brothers, Hank, Tarsi, or Kado, introduced her to Fausto, or she met him first, but everyone loved him and quickly involved him in all brother and family events and activities.

After the wedding, I have a basketful of memories, scenes, and images of Fausto. I remember Fausto and my dad sitting together at the kitchen table reviewing the Meter Reader exam that Fausto was taking to begin his long career with the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power. I remember cheering for him and my uncles once they formed the Diehards, a park athletic team that played football and softball in local playgrounds around Los Angeles. I remember his gracious greetings at so many Delgado Family Christmases and Thanksgivings, when the venue changed from my abuelos’ home on Workman Street in Lincoln Heights to the Garcia’s house in Alhambra. But I especially remember him for his generosity and kindness in welcoming and taking into his home so many family members in need.

Jay and Fausto always seemed the best matched couple in the family. Their temper, humor, and personalities were so similar and compatible that their names became one in its usage – Fausto n’ Jay: “We’re going to Fausto n’ Jay’s house. Fausto n’ Jay have Christmas. Helen’s at Fausto n’ Jay’s… Faust n’ Jay said this… Fausto n’ Jay did that.” The truth was Fausto and Jay were an extraordinary pair who faced and dealt with happiness and pain, and joy and struggle, with the same attitude of faith, love, and patience. Fausto was a companion, friend, and partner who was always there and never let Jay down in good times or in bad. Fausto was the model friend, husband, and father. He was a “mensch”.

My Dad once told me that when a man married a woman, he was in fact marrying her entire family. I have seen this truism played out in a few marriages, but it is not easy. The key to this transference of family love is the relationship between the husband and wife and its basis on trust, sharing, and selflessness. Fausto was the first husband I saw who embodied these virtues. When I was in the second or third grade (7 or 8 years old), my father suddenly left home on an extended 3-to-6 month trip to northern California. My mother and 4 children had to leave our home in Silver Lake and we moved in with Fausto and Jay’s family near Our Lady Help of Christians Catholic Church in Lincoln Heights. To this day I’m still unsure about where my father went and why, but I’m even more astounded at the kindness and generosity of Fausto and Jay in accepting us into their home. My memories are of a seamless merging of our two families with children, with us occupying the basement quarters. For an 8-year old, such a startling move from one house to another can be taken as a novel adventure, but for adults, the lack of privacy and space must have been incredibly inconvenient and difficult. I never felt any strain or discomfort, and I never heard any complaints or concerns of our imposition on the Garcia family. Fausto and Jay were consistently caring and considerate hosts, and their children Teresa and Albert became our special primos, or cousins.

Our family may have been the first of many, many more relatives who would be beneficiaries of Fausto and Jay’s kindness, compassion, and patience. They would repeat it countless times over the years. It would be easy to credit only Jay for this generosity, since so many of her brothers, sisters, and parents were helped by it – but I know better. One spouse cannot sustain such selfless actions. They require support. Fausto was that supporting and comforting pillar to anyone who needed him. I will never see his like again.

Unfortunately, over time I grew distant from Fausto and Jay, especially after I married and started a family of my own. I would see them at the occasional reunion or wedding, and we would greet and chat briefly. Recently it has been only at funerals. Fausto looked tired and weary when I saw him last at the Memorial Mass for my Aunt Espie in August, but he still had a smile and a greeting for me. His brown, moon-face lit up, and he radiated joy when he said, “Hello, Toñito”.

Strangely, Fausto’s passing, so soon after Espie’s death, struck me in a different way. I felt my childhood come to an end with Espie, but I sensed more of a transition with Fausto. Fausto was the first brother-in-law to become Family. Somehow his death felt like “movement” – moving from friend to spouse, from spouse to partner, from partner to father, from father to children, from one generation to the next, and from death to life. Rest in Peace, tió, I’ll never forget you.

Sep. 4th, 2015

William the Blogger

Putting It Together

Bit by bit,
Putting it together…
Piece by piece –
Only way to make a work of art.
Every moment makes a contribution,
Every little detail plays a part,
Having just a vision’s no solution,
Everything depends on execution.
Putting it together,
That’s what counts.
(Putting it Together, from Sunday in the Park with George: Stephen Sondheim – 1985)

I’ve been having some trouble getting back into writing. In fact, I’ve written only 2 blog essays so far this year, down significantly from eleven pieces in 2014 and twelve in 2013. Of course those numbers pale in comparison with the year right after my retirement (2010), when I wrote 36! I’d like to say that 2010 just happened to be a remarkable year. But the truth of the matter is that I was reorienting myself from a busy career as a middle school principal to a new reality in which I needed to find replacement activities. So, I went on regular camera safaris to photograph sites and people in nearby cities, neighborhoods, museums, colleges, and at sporting events – and wrote essays about them later. I volunteered to substitute at Kathy’s school, and became their unofficial event photographer. I joined my high school friends in trips to Las Vegas, Hoover Dam, Joshua Tree National Park, Kelso, Death Valley, and other locales. I also took my camera to family events, parties, graduations, and holidays, to record the occasions. I took up projects and new commitments. I volunteered as a chaplain in the Jail Ministry of the Archdiocese, I began the long-term task of converting my brother-in-law’s vinyl music collection into digital form, and I baby-sat my new granddaughter Sarah two-days a week. All of these activities and experiences were carefully noted in my mind and became sources for later blog essays. I was a “present and mindful” participant in all these events, and a natural desire to digest them, review them, and write about them flowed naturally. That zest for active observation started changing year by year.

I’d like to say that I “outgrew” my passion for writing over the years, but that would be a lame excuse, and misleading. The truth is I became lazy and started looking for justifications to do less and less. Volunteering at the jail in Castaic and babysitting twice a week were too strenuous and draining, I whined to myself, so I deserved more and more time off. Camera safaris required too much planning and energy, and were exhausting, so I needed rest. Writing became an arduous task that I kept putting off and avoiding. Writing took too much time and effort, I moaned. So I substituted binging on Netflix TV series or spending solitary afternoons at local movie theatres. I deserved taking it easy, I told myself over and over, and I was retired! At the same time I assuaged my growing guilt with the idyllic notion that some external, inspirational event would shake me out of my literary lethargy and get me back into writing. Something like that happened after the death of my Aunt Espie and my father-in-law. Those events slammed into use, forcing me to process their impacts by writing. It occurred to me only after my drama-less encounter with a “Stranger On a Bus”, that I was depending on these external face-slaps to prompt me back into the “practice” of writing. I was foolishly expecting the muse of Inspiration to overcome my slothful and indulgent habits and create an imperative to write and resume the struggle of creating something on paper that never existed before. It was only last week, as I sat in front of a blank page in my writing tablet, that I finally wrote the long avoided question: “What do I write about today?”

That’s a hard question to answer when one has been dodging it for years, depending on external events to inspire an effort. Writing had stopped being a practice for me, and became a therapy to deal with emotional experiences. I’d created a bubble for myself these last few years of retirement: avoiding all types of strenuous and energetic activities, eating and drinking what and when I chose, and limiting my stressful responsibilities to family commitments. The “hardest” thing I’d done for the last 3 years was driving to and from Gardena on the 405 Freeway, two days a week, to babysit Sarah and Gracie – and even that “hardship” was offset by the joy I experienced by spending so much time with my granddaughters. So what was I going to do? Writers write. Writing is a practice that must be performed, I thought to myself, gazing down at the question in front of me. If I was determined to resume the regular practice of writing I had to address that question: “What should I write about today?”

My writing guru, Natalie Goldberg, in her book Writing Down the Bones, insisted that the “practice” of writing could only be sustained if it is approached fearlessly and without consideration of its intrinsic merit or quality – as long as the writing is honest. In that case, truthfully, the only topics that have obsessed me, since returning from our vacation after the death of Kathy’s father, have been dieting and exercising. There I’ve said it! I admitted publically the answer I wrote to the question above. Arghh, who likes confessing that they are dieting and going to the gym?

Dieting with Weightwatchers and exercising at 24 Hour Fitness are the two hardest and most obtrusive factors in my life right now. They have taken me out of my three-year somnambulist existence and introduced discipline and hardship, and they were the topics that popped into my mind when I asked, “What should I write about?” Thankfully, Goldberg also counseled that all writing (especially when laced with complaints, self-pity, and whininess) doesn’t have to be “good”. The writing process is about practice, she insisted, not publishing, and the product doesn’t have to be “your best”. The point is to write. My greatest fear about writing about dieting and exercising is that it will sound whiney, self-aggrandizing, and pompous. How does one approach an essay on dieting and exercising? Hopefully one can find a voice that communicates humor and effort without sounding self-righteous.

That was as far as I got during my writing practice that day before I left for the gym. As I rediscovered in my last essay, Stranger On the Bus, the point of any encounter or experience is for the writer to be open to its reality and metaphoric possibilities. I can’t approach writing practice, Weightwatchers, and 24 Hour Fitness as obstacles to be overcome and vanquished, otherwise I’ll miss the creative opportunities they offer. Losing weight, getting fit, and writing is about taking it easy, day by day, step by step, and piece by piece, until it all comes together. That is my plan and my hope. I’ll keep you informed.

Aug. 21st, 2015


Stranger On A Bus

If God had a name what would it be?
And would you call it to his face?
If you were faced with Him in all His glory,

What would you ask if you had just one question?

What if God was one of us?
Just a slob like one of us,
Just a stranger on the bus,
Trying to make His way home.
(One of Us: Written by Eric Bazilian, and sung by Joan Osborne – 1995)

“Oh God”, I said to myself, easing into the patio chair near the corner of Burbank and Van Nuys Boulevard. “I’m next to a crazy man!”
I had just set down my “Grande” coffee cup atop the outdoor patio table of a Starbucks café when I looked up to see a man seated in a corner, talking loudly and looking up into a cell phone he was holding in his extended hand.
“Turn away from sin, brothers and sisters”, he said, “for only hellfire and abomination awaits you. This is the consuming fire that never stops and is never quenched, because it feeds on your sins and addictions. No one can save you but the Lord, our Holy Father. There is no Purgatory, no halfway house to rescue you when you die. There is no second chance. If you die in sin you will burn. There is no salvation without the Father. The Pope is an abomination! There is only ONE Holy Father, and that is God. So repent my brothers and sisters, forsake your sinful ways! Put down your drugs, put away your pornography and lascivious thoughts, and accept our Lord, Jesus Christ as your God and Savior.”

The seated man delivering this soliloquy appeared to be middle aged, wearing a ridiculous red sun visor with black printing all over it. “UTUBE” in big, bold capital letters adorned the crown, with the remainder of his internet address written in smaller letters on the bill. He wore dark sunglasses, on a world-weary, unshaven face, and he was dressed in a blue surgical tunic with more handwritten information, giving his phone number and email address. When he finally ended his solitary address with a perfunctory “Thank you”, I quickly recovered my coffee cup and retreated to another table and chair that was sufficiently removed from him, but not far enough to completely mute his spontaneous outbursts. As this coffee house evangelist put down his cell phone and settled into his chair, greeting customers as they passed, I was able to catch sideway glances of his antics and speculate about him. He was a homeless man, I decided, and a self-ordained preacher with a YouTube blog filled with short homilies and biblical aphorisms. A revelation of some sort had changed his life and given him the mission of publicizing, preaching, and cajoling endless streams of Starbucks customers to repent and accept Jesus into their lives. I also realized that I was becoming increasingly annoyed. I had come to Starbucks after dropping my car off for service at a nearby Subaru dealership, and was looking forward to a quiet hour or so of reading and sipping my coffee until the work was done. Instead a ceaseless string of greetings and religious platitudes, an unsolicited litany of welcome and goodwill, were harassing me:

“Good morning sister, God bless you”.
“Good morning miss”.
“God loves you, brother”.
“Have a good day sir”.
“How are you today miss?”
“Beautiful day today miss, God bless you”.
“Christ is our protection”.
“If I see a crime, I report it”.

I found it hard to concentrate on the book I was reading. His loud words were distracting, his friendliness annoying, and his behaviors were eliciting odd looks from other customers, and ridiculous thoughts on my part:
“Is he panhandling or just crazy? Is he trying to compliment these women or hoping to pick them up? Good luck if they’re pickup lines, because one look at his getup would turn any self-respecting woman into a pillar of salt. Was he anti-Catholic with his Purgatory and Pope remarks? And what did that crack about reporting crimes mean?”
In frustration I put away my book and searched my backpack for something else to do to take my attention away from this man. The situation reminded me of a term sometimes used in my wife’s family – The Greaney Curse.

Curses usually involve the supernatural invocation of some form of penalty or suffering on a person or family for the wrongs done by an ancestor. These curses usually drive members of the family into depression, murder, or suicide. That is the dynamic of a curse, its cause and effect. It is “a solemn utterance intended to invoke a supernatural power to inflict harm or punishment on someone or something”. The famous curses I recalled quickly were Edgar Allen Poe’s story and movie called The Fall of the House of Usher, and The Mummy’s Curse, with Lon Chaney Jr. Both movies involved punishments meted out on the offspring of the originally accursed person. It always struck me as unfair, that the sins of the father were passed on to his children, and they were forced to suffer the consequences for acts they never committed. However the Greaney Curse was different from other curses, because it turned this definition on its head, and became a strategy for coping.

The Greaney Curse was the belief that all members of my wife’s Irish-American family were doomed to pay the price for some long-forgotten, ancestral sin, and forced to suffer the eternal punishment of consistently sitting next to the wrong person on a airplane, dealing with the wrong person in an airport security line, or sitting next to, or in front of, the wrong person in a theatre. Surprisingly, this curse never led to depression or despair. Instead, when it was spotted and identified by a family member, they turned it into comedy. The annoying situation was perceived as being SO absurd and SO ridiculous, that it became the seed of a story that had to be shared, compared, and repeated by siblings, aunts, and cousins. I’ve been at countless family parties and get-togethers when one recitation of a cursed situation sparked hours of laughter and mirth, with everyone trying to top each other with their worst manifestation. It was through the lens of the Greaney Curse that I began seeing this coffee house evangelist in a new light. The situation certainly did not reach the level of being a true qualifier for the curse. I was not trapped in a plane or in a theatre with this man. I had choices. I could move or I could leave – or I could see him as someone other than an irritant or nuisance. So I decided to observe him more closely. My rummaging about in my backpack had unearthed an old Moleskine travel journal that I had used to note observations and essay ideas, beginning in 2007. My last entry was dated July 11, 2008. With an unexpected burst of writing energy, I turned to a blank page in the journal and began writing down more observations of this man and my subsequent reactions.

My “Utube” friend was now holding open a student composition book and showing it to customers seated inside the café, looking out through the large plate glass window. When he caught me peering at him, he turned the opened notebook in my direction so I could read the words printed in big block letters:
Chuckling as I turned away to write these words down in my journal, I heard him resume his litany of biblical quotes and proverbs, each ending with the refrain of “Thank you”. When I looked again to see whom he was addressing, I discovered that he was actually speaking or looking into his cell phone, as if recording each message. Was this a clever strategy to loudly proclaim the gospel without appearing completely crazy?

All this time, everyone in the vicinity of the patio preacher ignored him, until a short man wearing a white t-shirt and faded blue jeans finally challenged him in a brief verbal exchange trading biblical quotes. He lost. The preacher was too quick, too dogmatic, and too confident. He simply overwhelmed the t-shirted man with passage after passage, some sounding suspiciously more like proverbs than authentic quotations. He ended this encounter with a line from the Gospel of John:
“Jesus is the way, the truth and the life. No one can come to the Father except through him.”
“Do you really think that’s true?” the white-shirted man asked, conceding defeat with a shake of his head.
“I don’t just believe it, brother,” the preacher concluded, “I know it’s true.”

Who are these men, I reflected to myself, who frequent Starbucks and other cafés, spouting biblical phrases and religious platitudes? Are they homeless bums, lazy panhandlers, or undercover saints? At one point in his exchange with the t-shirted man, the biblical blogger had admitted to being “20 years sober”. Was he a recovering alcoholic who experienced his spiritual awakening upon reaching the 12th Step of AA and was now carrying the message of God to others? Was this his mission? I couldn’t answer any of these questions, but I suspected that to write him off with a simple generalization was too easy, too dismissive, and too smugly wrong. Instead, I found myself asking some final questions: “Was this man more than an annoying encounter? Was he a ‘messenger’ of some kind?

In the course of a day, I take note of no one in particular, except for people I already know. Sure I look at the men, women, and children around me, but I tend to dismiss them with little more than a glance, and write them off with a single descriptive word: big, young, old, cute, tall, or short. Which people break through our cloud of indifference? Well obviously this unknown “crazy man” did. He might be odd, but some of his words rang true, and he certainly got me to write. He reminded me of an old TV series we watched in the early 2000’s called Joan of Arcadia with Amber Tamblyn, Joe Mantegna, and Mary Steenburgen. In the show, Joan, a high school teenager, weekly encountered a different manifestation of God, each with a different message. God appeared to her as a skater, a Goth, a cute boy, an old lady, a garbage man, a dumpster diver, and as a Nigerian doctor. More than the messages in each episode, what I found most valuable was the idea that we all have the potential of daily encounters with God, or with God’s messengers. We simply have to wake up, look beyond our prejudices and presumptions, and notice them.

As I made my way back to the dealership to recover my car, I thought back on my encounter at Starbucks and considered what I was leaving with. I had arrived with the intention of reading a book, and I left with the desire to write a story about a stranger. He was a gift.

Jul. 31st, 2015


Free Birds Fly

By a lonely prison wall
I heard a young girl calling,
Michael they are taking you away.
For you stole Trevelyn’s corn,
So the young might see the morn.
Now a prison ship lies waiting in the bay.

Low lie the Fields of Athenry
Where once we watched the small free birds fly.
Our love was on the wing, we had dreams and songs to sing.
It’s so lonely ‘round the Fields of Athenry.
(The Fields of Athenry – Pete St. John: 1970)

Many years ago, Kathleen shared an old Irish superstition that was often quoted by her mother. Whenever a bevy of celebrity deaths occurred in a short space of time, Mary Cavanaugh Greaney would say, “Death always comes in 3’s”.  I have to confess that this macabre Irish saying occurred to me a few times in the course of 4 days: on Saturday, July 11, when I received news of the death of my Aunt Espie (Esperanza Delgado Parker) in Tennessee, after her on-again, off-again battle with cancer, and again on Tuesday, July 14, when my father-in-law Dr. Edward Michael Greaney died at home of natural causes. Ridiculous questions, like “Who else died recently, and who will be next?” popped into my head on each occasion. Thankfully I realized that these ludicrous thoughts were just samples of the plethora of feelings, ideas, and reactions that were swirling in my head as I tried processing these two disparate deaths.

Espie was a sparkling and active woman of 70 years – a sister, aunt, wife, friend, mother, and grandmother, who had seemingly won a recent battle with cancer after moving to Tennessee with her husband Larry to be closer to her daughter and grandchildren. Doctor Greaney, on the other hand, had lived a long and full life, finally expiring in his home at the ripe old age of 96. Espie died too soon, I secretly felt, while Dr. Greaney lived long enough. But these private feelings were personal and emotionally powered. Another person could just as easily shrugged off both deaths, explaining them away as “karma”. One thing is sure to me however, deaths to family members and close friends are always “too soon” and disquieting, because we suffer a personal loss and are forced to look at our own mortality, posing unanswerable questions about dying and what we leave behind us.

Espie was born August 8, 1944, the 14th and youngest child in the Delgado family. I was the first grandchild and nephew, born 3 years later to the eldest sibling of the clan, my father, Antonio (Tony) Delgado. My earliest memories of Espie always included the two siblings who preceded her, my aunt Lisa and uncle Charlie. Those memories tend to be episodic because they occurred when my parents visited our grandparent’s home on Workman Street in Lincoln Heights on weekends and on holidays. I vaguely remember being introduced to coloring books and paper dolls by Lisa and Espie in their upstairs bedroom, and then, in later years, gravitating to Charlie’s room where I could see his comic books, or play make-believe games with him in the backyard with toy weapons or plastic soldiers. I remember learning Christmas carols from this trio as we helped assemble the annual Nacimiento (Nativity Scene) in the living room; being taught the art of  “sparkler drawing/writing in the air” on Independence Day; and comparing costumes on Halloween and learning the finer points of “Trick-or-Treating”. Despite this crazy mishmash of early scenes and vague chronology, I do recall 3 particular incidents that left a profound impression on me.

The first incident involved Charlie’s bike. From my perspective as a 5 or 6-year-old, Charlie (at 10 or 11) was a master cyclist. It didn’t matter that Lisa could ride one too; Charlie was the daredevil who leapt onto the seat from a running start, peddled with no hands, and transported passengers on his handle bars. If Charlie needed to deliver a message or travel somewhere on a chore or errand, he would often take along a passenger. I found this trick to be amazing, and I accompanied him on many excursions until I witnessed its risks.

It occurred one Saturday, when many of my older aunts and uncles were present in the house, but adult topics and endless conversation had driven the younger children outdoors. I remember Charlie with raven-haired Espie, proud as a queen and balanced on the front handlebars of his bike, telling us he was going to the 5 and Dime store around the corner. It must have happened on the way back that I heard a piercing scream of pain and a crash. Instantly Lisa rushed past me to the front door of the house and yelled that Espie was hurt and needed help. The image of a thundering herd of wild-eyed uncles stampeding through the front door to rescue their baby sister is forever burned into my memory. Although in fact there were probably only 5 brothers present (Tarsi, Henry, Kado, Victor, and my dad) it seemed like a tidal wave of brotherly concern and affection descended on Espie and Charlie, and it was comforting to realize that this emergency squad of uncles was always at the ready to rescue me, and any family member in trouble. Softly weeping, Espie returned to the house cradled in Henry’s arms, with other uncles tending her injured foot and cooing reassurances. There was concern for Charlie (who escaped with only minor scrapes and bruises) and praise for Lisa’s speedy alertness in calling for help, but what struck me most was the realization that Espie was the darling of the family. She was the youngest, “the baby”, “la consentida”, and “the favored one”.

“Esperanza” is the Spanish word for Hope, and in many ways, I think Espie, as the last child, was an avatar, or embodiment, of many of the best Delgado family traits and qualities. She had Lupe’s gaiety, Helen’s confidence and intelligence, Jay Jay’s kindness, Tillie’s innocence, and Lisa’s goodness. She also manifested the disciplined and practical mind that was seen in some of her brothers. But she had something extra. Despite her youth, she had a special way of doing things, and a willingness to be different. I started noticing these traits when she was in high school and before and after her marriage to Larry Parker in 1965.

As far as I know, Espie and Charlie were the only members of the family to attend and graduate from Lincoln High School, the public school up the street from their home on So. Broadway. The fact that my aunt was attending a public school was astounding to me. I was sheltered in a confining Catholic parochial school environment, and Espie, 4 years ahead of me, was attending classes and mixing with Protestants, Jews, Buddhists, Anglos, Nisei, and other Mexican-Americans. She was experiencing the Brave New World of the late 50’s and early 60’s, during the heyday of Rock and Roll, teenage rebellion, James Dean, Elvis Presley, and Dick Clark’s American Bandstand. On one particular Saturday Espie told me all about her high school friends, her classes, clubs, and the career opportunities that beckoned after graduation. At the time, she used words and phrases I didn’t really understand until I entered high school myself –  co-eds, sock hops, pep rallies, homecoming, and especially prom. Even though she graduated from Lincoln HS 6 years before the Student Walkouts of 1968, she was already expressing many of the new Chicano views about discrimination, higher education, and equal rights. She used the slang “paddies” when referring to Anglo students. In my Mexican and Mexican-American worlds I’d heard the term “gringos” used sometimes, but never “paddy” (many years later I learned the origins of this pejorative term for the Irish). Like all her sisters, Espie went straight to work after graduation in 1962, and during the next 3 years she worked, partied, and to everyone’s surprise, met, and married a young, fresh-faced, red-haired, Palmdale “paddy” who was recently discharged from the Navy and attending classes at Los Angeles City College on Vermont Blvd.

I was completing my junior year in high school when Espie and Larry Parker wed in 1965, and their parties and wedding celebrations were the perfect testing ground for teenage romance and flirtation. Espie’s wedding (and Charlie’s, which followed later that summer) was my unofficial “coming out” event. In the parties and social gatherings that followed, I chatted, joked, danced, and flirted with cousins and strangers alike, and for the first time got a whiff of that heady brew called infatuation. But of more lasting significance were the times I spent with Larry and Espie hearing about the decisions they were contemplating and the future they were planning. Espie was charting an independently modern course different from any of her sisters. Until her union with Larry, the Delgado family treated marriage as a parenting endeavor, with the husband working close to home and a wife raising a family. Espie and Larry, however, visualized marriage as a lifetime and moveable partnership. Their intertwined futures consisted of leaving Los Angeles and moving to San Francisco, where Larry enrolled and eventually graduated from the University of California, Berkeley, in engineering, while Espie worked full time. He then transitioned into a full time career in Southern California, freeing Espie for motherhood, raising a family, and then pursuing future educational opportunities. It was a revolutionary plan in 1965, but to their hardworking credit, they succeeded happily and marvelously for 50 years.

I followed Espie on Facebook in the years after she and Larry moved to Tennessee in 2009, and the last time I saw her was at the funeral of my Aunt Lupe, in 2013. She spent the 24 hours before the funeral dining, talking, laughing, and reminiscing with her eternal sidekicks Lisa and Charlie. She was vibrant, upbeat, and optimistic of the future, talking of her plans for a Golden Wedding Anniversary in the spring of 2015.

While these memories of Espie occurred to me quickly upon hearing the news of her death, I had no sudden insights as to how to approach Dr. Greaney’s life. I’d mentioned him in past essays and I didn’t want to rehash old tales, nor tread on the many stories and anecdotes of his 9 surviving children. It was only when I started thinking back on the liturgy and readings for the Doctor’s funeral mass, and especially the homily given by Monsignor Clement Connolly, that some ideas started to percolate. I was first struck by something Patti, Kathy’s sister, mentioned on the day of the Doctor’s death, while explaining the readings they had chosen for the mass. “The point of the liturgy”, she said, “with it prayers, hymns, readings, and homily, is to teach. People should come away from the liturgy having learned something.” Monsignor Connolly reinforced this message at the beginning of his homily the following Saturday, adding that “every life is the ‘Good News’, or the ‘Gospel’ of that person”, meaning that the life of every person was meant to instruct us as to how to live, and perhaps, how to act. Since there was to be no official eulogy for Dr. Edward Michael Greaney at the mass, the Monsignor’s remarks proceeded to intertwine the readings and the Gospel of the day with his remarks about “the gospel according to Mike”. It was that liturgy and the Monsignor’s homily that finally provided the impetus for the remainder of this essay.

The first reading from the Letter of James, exhorted us to “be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves”, and Doctor Greaney was certainly a man of deeds and action. His life was checkered with noteworthy and significant achievements and professional accomplishments: a graduate of Fordham University and Jefferson Medical College, and immediately commissioned in the U.S. Navy as a Lieutenant, serving as Battalion Surgeon of the 3rd Marine Division in the Battle of Iwo Jima. He married Mary Cavanaugh of Stamford, CT in 1943, and had two of eventually 10 children born during the war years. Upon his discharge in 1947 he completed a residency in general surgery at the Long Beach Veteran’s Hospital in 1951, and began a long and successful private practice in Los Angeles and the San Fernando Valley. Monsignor Connolly also noted that despite his towering pride and need for control, “Mike was an enchanter – he enchanted people”. This quality was apparent to me throughout my 40-year association with the Doctor. He had many, many loyal and devoted friends and acquaintances, who came in all sexes, ages, professions, ethnicities, and social levels. He knew cardinals and priests, architects and gardeners, movie stars and parking lot attendants. Some he met at his country club, some he operated on, and some he’d encounter on the beach, walking a dog or inspecting the surf. There was a glamour around Dr. Greaney and his “bedside manner” that stayed with people he met and patients he tended. Kathy would tell me stories of how complete strangers, upon hearing her maiden name of Greaney and discovering she was the daughter of their former surgeon, would go on and on with tales of his care, concern, and expertise. “He saved my life”, they would often conclude, pressing her hand, as if that tactile connection with a daughter would somehow renewed their association with the Doctor. It was at that point of the “gospel according to Mike” when Monsignor Connolly introduced a surprising twist with a parable from the Gospel of Luke.

Monsignor Connolly told of the righteous man and the tax collector: “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people – robbers, evildoers, adulterers – or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’ But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’ I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” I’m no longer sure what Monsignor Connolly was proposing with this parable, and how it applied to the “gospel according to Mike”. Was the Doctor the righteous man or the sinner? Was he the successful surgeon, the glamorous enchanter, who patted himself on the back and went home “justified”, or was he the outcast in the rear, the flawed, imperfect, and sinful man who beat his breast and called to God for mercy. I had expected a veiled but glowing eulogy, and what I heard instead was an unsettling tale of two men, an enchanter and an outcast, a self-righteous professional and a sinner. If “every life is the ‘Good News’, or the ‘Gospel’ of that person”, as Monsignor Connolly suggested, what then were the lessons to be learned from the lives and deaths of Espie and Mike?

For the “gospel of Espie”, I would point to the Letter of James used in the Doctor’s funeral liturgy:

“My brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of any kind, consider it nothing but joy, because you know that the testing of your faith produces endurance; and let endurance have its full effect, so that you may be mature and complete, lacking in nothing.”

Espie was easy to love, and graceful endurance is how I think she lived her final years in retirement with Larry after the cancer was discovered. After blossoming as a wife, partner, mother, and mature woman in Southern California, Espie again packed up and moved with Larry, the love of her life, to live in Tennessee with her children and grandchildren. From what I learned in conversations and in Facebook, she and Larry built a house there and enjoyed each day as it came, until those days ran out. Sadly, her death has left a huge gap in my life that only old memories can now substitute.

As for the “gospel of Mike”, I fear that I have done poor justice to the liturgy planned by Kathy’s siblings and Monsignor Connolly’s homily. I hope this essay somehow reflects the powerful impression they left on me that day. I suspect that I will never again hear a more honest and compassionate tribute to person at a funeral. Doctor Greaney, especially during the waning months of his life, was a difficult and demanding man on family members and caregivers alike. No one saw this better, I believe, than Monsignor Connolly who visited him regularly and faithfully, and who heard his confession and gave him the Last Rites the night before he died. In those last days, I’m sure Monsignor saw past the glamour and enchantment of Dr. Greaney and recognized Mike, the flawed and imperfect man, husband, friend, and father who lay before him. Perhaps there is not one but many lessons to be learned from the gospel of Mike. Some in his actions and deeds, and some in what his 9 surviving children and 26 grandchildren take away from those accomplishments. Then again, in the end, the outcast tax collector in Monsignor’s parable simply asked God for mercy and compassion – perhaps that is what that the gospel of Mike asks of us.

Nov. 21st, 2014

Family Portrait 2006

Dear Departed Past

Here’s to the dear departed past:
The photographs you find,
That seem to call to mind,
Familiar family faces.

That’s when every sky was bluer.
Clouds seemed to disappear back then.
That’s when every friend was truer.
Ahh, but then again,
Didn’t they know you when?

But here’s to the echoes of tomorrow,
Soon to be memories at last.
Memories that will someday reappear,
Loud and clear,
In the dear departed past.
(Dear Departed Past: Dave Frishberg – 1985)

I think the last time I thought longingly about Toñito as a child was when he graduated from high school and left home in 1996 to attend George Washington University in Washington D.C. His departure was like losing sight of your infant child, as he swiftly turned a corner into a narrow alleyway that he alone could see and walk. The path he had traveled at home, as a child and youth, could never be retraced, and would never be followed again. His life since college has been an independent one, filled with jobs, games, friendships, relationships, and adjustments – but he has always managed to remain geographically and emotionally connected to his family and loved ones. I suppose I’m suddenly flooded with memories of his youth and childhood because they are now truly coming to an end. You see, Tony fulfills the old Irish adage of “a son is a son until he takes a wife…” when he marries Nikki Willis in March of 2015. How much of that youthful boy of my memories still lingers and dwells in the man Toñito has become today? I wondered...



The final impetus for this essay came when I heard Rosemary Clooney’s rendition of a great old song called “Dear Departed Past” in my iTunes library. The lyrics captured my mood and sentiments as I approached this crossroad in Toñito’s life. It brought to mind many long buried scenes and images of Toñito as an infant, youth, and adolescent. (Note: Since I couldn’t find a YouTube clip of the song by Rosemary Clooney, nor the complete lyrics online, I took the trouble to transcribe the song myself, and added the lyrics to the end of this essay.)

Tony & Prisa in suits

Tony on Swing

I must finally confess that Toñito was a sweet and “special” child. There is no getting around the fact that a first-born child is a “once in a lifetime” experience, and Toñito’s personality made parenting a joy. I can clearly remember holding Kathy’s hand through her extended hours of labor pains; adjusting to the shocking news that she would require a “C-section” delivery; and seeing Kathy for the first time after the operation, radiant with happiness and relief as she showed me the perfect, fuzzy-headed infant in her arms. From the first time I held Toñito in the hospital room, to the long goodbye I whispered to him through the looking glass of the nursery, after the longest days of my life, I have loved him in a way that has never been repeated. No matter how intently Prisa interrogated me on this point later on, and despite all my evasions and insistence that she was “special” too, there is something unique in experiencing, caring for, and loving your first-born child. All the raw fears, worries, and uncertainties of parenthood are not often repeated with the second child. There is a relaxation and newfound confidence with the second, and the path of childhood has been clearly opened and mapped for them by the first. I saw these dynamics repeated in the births of our first granddaughters, Sarah and Gracie. Watching those two girls now, as they smile, laugh, and play with each other, only reminded me again of those first years with Toñito, of the years he and Prisa spent together as children, and our early lives in our first home in Reseda.

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Magical Pair 1

I’m sure that many people would assume that my first impressions of Toñito would be of his intelligence – how alertly he observed things, and how quickly he spoke, learned, and began reading. But more than anything else Toñito had the ability to astound me and bring tears of joy to my eyes with his actions, words, and imagination. I always thought of him as my own “Little Prince”, a boy from another world bringing the gifts of unconditional love, laughter, and childish wonder into our adult home. In many ways Toñito re-taught me the truths I knew once as a child, but had forgotten as a man.

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Little Prince 1

Young Prince

Toñito’s laughter was his sweetest gift to us as a child. Until his voice changed at 10 or 11 years of age, Toñito had a secret, tinkling laugh that escaped him during private moments. It sounded like wind chimes in a gentle breeze. This was not his public laughter, the one he used in school, at family gatherings, or with friends. It was his private chuckling. I would hear it on quiet days from another room, while he sat alone in the living room or bedroom, reading a book, listening to an audiotape, or watching television. I would inch toward the open door silently and carefully, as if stalking a skittish hummingbird, hoping to find the source of the enchanting sound. Without betraying my presence, I would peek in for a quick glimpse of the tall, skinny boy, with a shock of black hair falling over his forehead, sitting on the rug or couch, engrossed in a book or magazine. Ducking back into the hallway, I imagined a luminous, Tinkerbell-like faerie perched on his narrow shoulder, leaning into his ear, and whispering the private jokes or riddles that delight children. If Kathy appeared, I would raise my finger to my lips and motion for silence. Her questioning look would disappear when the chiming giggles floated through the door again. She would beam a smile of clarity, and we shared our private secret silently. Too soon, however, a sound from the street, yard, or another room would intrude – a car starting, a boy shouting, or a telephone ringing – and the moment would pass. At puberty, Toñito kept reading, watching TV, and laughing, but the faeries came no more, and the sounds of tinkling laughter ceased.

Toñito Nov. 1979


Laughing Family

Oddly enough for a fervent John Lennon fan, I never heard him sing his lullaby, “Beautiful Boy,” until listening to the radio on Father’s Day in 1988. I was driving home from Chatsworth, on Topanga Canyon Boulevard. Toñito was 10 years old, at the time, and very much still a child. As I listened to the lyrics for the first time, I could feel my throat tighten, my face flush, and tears starting to moisten the sides of my eyes. Mists of bittersweet memories crept into my mind and thoughts. The song awakened tender images of moments spent with Toñito as a small child. I recalled teaching him his night prayers, as we knelt together side by side at the foot of our king size bed; showing him how to cross the street by himself, but taking his hand into mine when he actually stepped onto the road; and reading the Bene Gesserit “Litany Against Fear” from the science fiction novel, Dune, as a means of calming his worries and anxieties. It seemed that Lennon was describing my life and actions as Toñito’s dad during those wonderful formative years. It suddenly struck me that my son was growing up too fast, and I feared, for the first time, that there might come a time when he would not need me anymore.

Easter 1979

It Boy B

It Boy A

Ultimately, as Toñito grew older, his intelligence, talents, and abilities quickly equaled and far surpassed mine in grade school, high school, and college. While this was a source of great pride and satisfaction for me, I will confess that there was one trait I especially envied – Tony’s passion for acting and his desire to perform. You see, Kathy espoused a dartboard approach to exposing our children to a variety of athletic and artistic opportunities beyond school. Beginning at age 4, Kathy kept targeting new sports and activities for Tony and Prisa to tryout, searching for the bull’s-eye that would stick and become a lifelong interest or habit: AYSO soccer, baseball, softball, basketball, swimming, and finally, children’s musical theatre. Prisa loved sports, but Tony fell under the spell of stage and theatre at age 11. He took classes and auditioned for plays and musicals in high school, majored in it in college, and never stopped being a part of it until well into his late twenties. Strangely enough, although he performed in countless musical and theatre productions in grade school, high school, and college, the clearest memory I have of Tony performing is of a particular dramatic interpretation of an original story.

Little Dodger 1985

Tony in St. Catherine of Siena

Into The Woods

When Toñito was in the 7th grade, he was a first-time member of his school’s academic team, and participated in an annual Academic Decathlon of sorts at Louisville High School. One of his events was dramatic interpretation. Even though he had performed in children’s theatre for many years, Toñito had never participated in this type of competition. He was one of the first participants to perform, and although he was poised and effective, it was obvious that he lacked the polish and dramatic experience that the older performers brought to their efforts. I watched Toñito as he studied these veteran performers, his eyes fixed on their movements and motions, noting their pauses, inflections, tones, and mannerisms. When the competition was over, and I asked him how he felt about his performance, he explained that while he was satisfied with his effort, he was eager for next year’s competition when he could apply some of the techniques and methods he had observed.


Wow Boy

The following year, the Louisville HS Academic Competition introduced a variation in this category. In homage to Dr. Seuss, the pen name of Theodor Seuss Geisel, who had died earlier that year, the event called for the interpretation of original stories, written in the Dr. Seuss style of message and rhyme. Kathy and I felt that the new twist played to Tony’s strengths of creative imagination, writing, and dramatic interpretation. Toñito was a devoted fan of Dr. Seuss since the age of three, when he memorized and recited, in their entirety, Dr. Seuss’s ABC, Hop On Pop, and Fox In Sox. However, while we knew that Toñito was working tirelessly on his story, he kept it secret, never giving Kathy or me a hint as to what the story was about, or how he meant to perform it. Sadly for me, the day of the Louisville Competition conflicted with an event I had to attend as Principal of El Sereno Middle School, so by the time I arrived it was over. Although Kathy raved about Toñito’s performance, telling me he was by far  the most dramatic and original, I was depressed that I had not actually experienced it first hand. I didn’t get a clear notion of the quality of his work until the awards ceremony at the end of the competition. When the category of Dramatic Interpretation came up, the principal announced that because of its creative and artistic merit, the judges had decided to recognize and award Tony Delgado for exceptional excellence in the category. Later that evening, Toñito gave a private performance of “The Galumpagger” to a small audience of his family and friends. It proved to be one more occasion when his imagination, creativity, and artistic abilities brought tears of joy and pride to my eyes.

Reading Boy D

Reading Boy B

Our first baseless concern about Toñito (of which there were many over the years) was worrying how he would react to the birth of a sibling and a rival for our affection – his sister, Teresa. We needn’t have bothered, because it was love at first sight. Toñito was devoted to his baby sister, and he made her his first real playmate. He watched her, cared for her, worried about her, and shared everything he owned with her. He joined us on the carpet, watching and encouraging Teresa’s steady physical development as an infant, and he dubbed her with the nickname “Prisa” through his early attempts at pronouncing her full name. He patiently spent hours playing with her, reading to her, and involving her in his imaginative games and activities. One such game was his version of  “Make Me Laugh”, a TV show he recorded on his cassette machine in June of 1984, when he was 6 and Prisa had just turned 4. This was an 8-minute audio recording in which Tony played a game show host and Prisa was his first contestant. The interaction is hilarious, with Tony very much in character as the MC, introducing the game and contestant, and then reading a series of jokes from a children’s joke book he had read. Prisa, whose role was merely refraining from laughing (which was pretty easy considering the childish nature of the jokes), was constantly moving and interrupting:

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Capo Kids

Our Kids

Tony: “Prisa, how do you stop a lion from charging? You take away his credit card! Why did the elephant sit on the marshmallow? To keep from falling in the cocoa!”
Prisa (trying into interrupt): “Wait a minute! You know what….
Tony (ignoring the interruption): “Why did the elephant paint himself all different colors? So he could hide in a bag of Skittles! Aaacckkkk” (he said, simulating a buzzer). Sorry, time is up Prisa. You have just won $60.00. Would you like to keep it or keep on going?”
Prisa (after a long pause): “Keep going”.
Tony (dramatically): “Okay! Teresa Delgado says ‘Make Me Laugh!’ Yayyyyyy (he yells, simulating the crowd).
Tony (after reading 3 more jokes from his joke book): “Aaacckkkk… Time’s up! Now Teresa Delgado, would you like to keep your $120.00 or would you like to keep on going?”
Prisa (impatiently): “I’ll keep it!”
Tony (dramatically): “Okay, goodbye Teresa Delgado, it was nice knowing you! Now our next contestant is… get back Prisa, you’re not on the show anymore.”
Prisa (as if talking off-camera): “It would be better if you were watching this show on TV!”

Magical Pair 2

Caroling Kids

Although I doubt she remembers those years when they shared bunk beds in one room, very clearly, before the making of personal friends in school and sports, but Toñito was Prisa’s first hero. She idolized and looked up to him, imitated him, and loved to watch him play Nintendo with his friends Tomar and Oded. She could ask him any question or favor, and know that it would be answered seriously and granted, even if it meant letting her have a turn at the games they played. I’m reminded of those interactions now when I see Sarah’s love for Gracie. I’m convinced it is a testament to our unlimited capacity for love; a love that begins as children, grows as adults, and finally matures and resurfaces as spouses and parents. I saw it in Teresa, as a wife and mother, and I’m looking forward to seeing it in Toñito, as a husband and father.

prisa & tonito

The Dear Departed Past
by Dave Frishberg.

Am I hopelessly old fashioned,
Cause I’m harboring a passion
For the olden days?
Is my sense of time so out of joint,
It’s starting to distort my point of view?

Does my antiquarian brain contain
Imaginary memories of golden days?
Can one feel a real nostalgia,
For a time and place one
Never even knew?

I anticipate times to come,
With something less than jubilation.
And I’m turning to times gone by,
With something more and more
Like admiration.

Here’s to the dear departed past:
The musty magazines,
The sepia tinted scenes,
Of long forgotten places.

Here’s to the dear departed past:
The photographs you find,
That seem to call to mind,
Familiar family faces.

That’s when every sky was bluer.
Clouds seemed to disappear back then.
That’s when every friend was truer.
Ahh, but then again,
Didn’t they know you when?

Here’s to the folks who lived next door:
Let’s cut across the yard,
Drop in and leave a card,
With neighborly affection.

Here’s to the ways we see no more:
The manner and the style,
That makes you want to smile,
In happy retrospection.

As for me, I’ll forget about the future,
Cause the future fades away too fast.
Now’s the time to lift a cup of cheer,
And say ‘Hear, hear!’
For the dear departed past.

Here’s to ‘sides’ we used to spin:
The Decca’s and Savoy’s,
With all the surface noise,
The Lindy Hops and Foxtrots.

Here’s to the Orphan Annie pin,
The Secret Squadron ring,
The mailman used to bring,
For a quarter and some boxtops.

Music on the yuke was easy,
E-7 always went to A.
Chinese Checkers and Parchessi,
And every Saturday,
The movie matinee.

I loved the ’55 Bel Air, the ’37 Fords,
Complete with running boards,
And rumble seats
And fenders.

Where are the clothes we used to wear?
Now don’t forget your tie,
And button up your fly,
And fasten your suspenders!

As for me, I don’t think about tomorrow,
Cause tomorrow wasn’t built to last.
Now’s the time to weep a little tear,
Into your beer,
For the dear departed past.

Three cheers for the champs of yesterday:
Jack Dempsey, John McGraw,
Joe Louis, Sammy Baugh,
The movers and the shakers.

And here’s to the teams that moved away:
From disenfranchised towns,
The old Saint Louis Browns,
The Minneapolis Lakers.

That’s when basketballs had laces,
And halfbacks played safety on defense.
That’s when there were parking places,
Hot dogs for a dime, White Castle 7 cents.

And here’s to White Castles by the sack:
I heard somebody say
They’re still around today,
But they wouldn’t taste the same now.

Here’s to the years that won’t be back:
The days that dodged away,
And left us here to play
A completely different game now.

But here’s to the echoes of tomorrow,
Soon to be memories at last.
Memories that will someday reappear,
Loud and clear,
In the dear departed past.

Memories that will someday reappear,
Loud and clear,
In the dear departed past.

Nov. 4th, 2014

Kid Dedalus

The Power of Words & Love

“Words are pale shadows of forgotten names.
As names have power, words have power.
Words can light fires in the minds of men.
Words can wring tears from the hardest hearts.”
Patrick Rothfuss, The Name of the Wind

“The power of love is a curious thing.
Makes one man weep, makes another man sing.
Changes a hawk to a little white dove.
More than a feeling, that’s the power of love.

Tougher than diamonds, rich like cream,
Stronger and harder than a bad girl’s dream.
Makes a bad one good, makes a wrong one right,
The power of love keeps you home at night.
(Power of Love: Huey Lewis – 1985)

It started out as just another Saturday afternoon at my grandparent’s house on Workman Street. There was no big family occasion or celebration planned for that day. If anything, it was remarkably quiet. All of my uncles were gone, having taken the big truck to help the family of a friend move into a new house, and my aunts were busily engaged choosing their dresses and makeup, and getting ready for some big adult party or dance later that night. There had been no planning in this trip to our abuelos’ house. My Dad had simply announced that we were going to his parents’ home, and he plopped all 5 of us, my Mom, the twins, Arthur and Stela, and the baby, Gracie, into the car and drove to Lincoln Heights. We would make a day of it as we went along. My mother’s contribution to the trip came when we were about a mile or two from our destination. As she always did when we visited my grandparents, she asked my father to stop the car for a minute so she could address the children. Holding 5 year-old Gracie in her lap, she turned her head to speak to the 3 older children seated in the back seat.
“Ahora, para revisar…” she said, speaking in Spanish:

Easter 1958

“Now then, let’s review. The first things you do when we arrive are to saludar, or greet, your grandparents right away, and then your aunts, uncles, and cousins. Always remember that your actions reflect your family and me – so behave and be courteous. If anyone asks how we are, or how we’re doing, you simply tell them: ‘Bien gracias’, and no more. Ustedes son niños bien educados (You are well-educated children) so make sure your words and actions reflect the way I brought you up”.

I’ve taken some liberties with my mother’s usual preamble to a visit, but you get the picture. She was bringing her family of four children into her in-law’s home, and she did not want us embarrassing or shaming her parenting skills. Being “bien educados” was paramount in my mother’s code of conduct, and we needed to mind our words and actions. Strangely, now that I think back upon those scenes, my father never said a word. I don’t know if he ever rolled his eyes, pursed his lips, or frowned during my mother’s monologues on etiquette and manners. All I remember is that he always called my mother his “princess”, and treated her with loving kindness and patience.

Mom & Me at Workman

Unfortunately for my mom, her stern warnings had become somewhat routine and commonplace by age 9 or 10, and I no longer took them very seriously. I assumed I was a “niño, bien educado”, and my actions would take care of themselves. After formally greeting our abuelos, tias, and primos, in their chronological or hierarchal order, I immediately set off searching for my Uncle Charlie. Only 5 years older than me, Charlie was like my older brother. I idolized him and imitated all of his interests and activities. When we visited his home, he always kept me thoroughly engaged with his fertile imagination for games, his vast cache of comic books, or involved in the current sport he was playing. Sadly, he was gone that day, having accompanied his older brothers, Kado, Tarsi, and Henry in their furniture moving operation. Left to my own devices, I first tried separating myself from my younger brother Arthur so I could explore the massive, ramshackle house that was my grandfather’s domain on my own. I had explored my grandfather’s house alone on other occasions. His home was a treasure trove of hidden, stored, and sometimes visible artifacts, tools, and curiosities. However, while I had achieved a certain level of stealthiness in these explorations, my brother Arthur had not. It never seemed to occur to him that we were doing something wrong as I searched through drawers, cupboards, and cabinets. So Arthur, who we nicknamed Tito, tended to be nosier and clumsier during his searches.


On this particular Saturday, in the absence of an older playmate and guide, I decided to find something to eat, and went searching for a snack in my abuelita’s pantry. This was a walk-in storeroom next to the kitchen, which was lined with countless shelves, stacked with canned goods, jars of condiments and food, and boxes and wrapped packages of bread, cookies, and sometimes candy. Children were strictly forbidden from this domain, unless accompanied by an adult. Wisely, I had often volunteered to accompany and help my Aunt Lisa when she was given the task of storing food and groceries after a shopping trip, so I knew where the cookies and crackers were located. However, I had never entered the pantry on my own, nor had I ever secretly absconded with food before. The tension and excitement of performing a forbidden act was actually more compelling than my hunger. I was more bored than hungry, and I convinced myself that taking some cookies or crackers was no big deal. What I didn’t count on was Arthur’s loud exclamations of wonder and excitement at being inside a forbidden chamber, and seeing so much food and produce in one place.
“Look at this,” he exclaimed loudly, “Ritz Crackers, and Oreos!”
My panicked shushes only animated him further, and to make matters worse he started reaching up and touching boxes of cereal, and moving aside cans of fruit and soup. To reach the higher levels, he began stepping up on the lower shelves and stretching out his arm and hand to inspect the jars and bottles stored there. There was one particularly big glass jar of frijoles (pinto beans, to be exact) at the edge of the uppermost shelf. I saw the danger before he did and shouted, “Watch out, Tito!”

Whistful Gaze

Too late – his hand brushed the jar sideways and sent it rolling off the edge. Eyes wide, and pupils dilating in panic, I watched the massive jar float downward, as if in slow-motion, shattering on the hard linoleum floor, and sending wave after wave of beans bounding and careening across the room. Somehow I managed to shake off my paralysis and verbalized the one word that always leapt to my lips when faced with the awful calamity of my own making: “Run!”

Ignoring the dangerous mess of beans and broken glass we had created, we scurried out the pantry door, running right past my Aunt Helen. I led the way, with Arthur following in my wake, streaking through the kitchen, out the door and into the den, living room, and hallway entrance, not stopping until we reached the safety and open air of the front porch. I knew I was in trouble, and immediately started thinking of ways to shift the burden of guilt onto Arthur. After all, he had ignored my warnings to be quiet and still, he had reached up too high for the box of crackers, and he had knocked the frijoles off the shelf. I had simply watched him do it. I was truly an innocent bystander, I concluded. But before I could plan my defense further, Helen arrived.

Toñito!” came the screeching call from the interior of the house. “Ven aqui”, Helen commanded, angrily, bursting through the hallway and bounding out the front door. “Come here, right now! Don’t you dare run away from me, “ she warned, watching me give the street a longing look, as if considering further flight.

I had never seen Helen so angry. Her faced was flushed and her voice was strained and strident. I avoided Helen whenever possible. She seemed the most mature and aloof of my aunts, and never wanted to be bothered with children or infants. If she babysat us, the evening became a boring monotomy of watching TV silently, not bothering her, and going to bed early, so she could make phone calls to girl friends and suitors. I stayed out of her way as much as possible and was careful not to upset her. This was the first time I felt the fury of her unleashed anger – and her voice paralyzed me, so all I could do was turn and face her.

Delgado Xmas 1958

“Antonio Alberto”, she accused, calling me by my full name. “I saw you in the kitchen. You were stealing food and you made a mess of the cocina. I’m going to make sure that you get spanked to within an inch of your life, and that you can’t sit down for a week. I always suspected you as a troublemaker and a thief. Everybody thinks you’re such an angel, but I knew you were a travieso sin vergüenza. Wait ‘til I tell your mother what you did.”

That’s when I lost it. Until she mentioned my mother I had been anxiously waiting for a chance to interrupt and tell my side of the story. But Helen wasn’t investigating – she had seen us fleeing the scene of the crime, and I was the eldest brother, the first-born grandson of the family. The burden of responsibility and guilt fell on me. But now, Helen was going too far. She was blaming me for past sins and offenses, and calling me a “travieso sin vergüenza”, a shameless troublemaker. But worst of all, she was threatening to tell my mother and embarrass her before the entire family. I felt my face flush and glow with impotent rage, and my breath quickened. Somehow I needed to stop this endless, emotional tirade, and shut Helen up.

Tony A

Miraculously, an image popped into my head. A scene from a schoolyard incident I had witnessed some weeks before. A scrawny, smart-alecky 6th grader had befuddled a much bigger and stronger 8th grader with just one phrase. Two words, and the burly 8th grader, who had been threatening the smaller boy, froze with shock and impotent rage. I had puzzled over that scene, and repeated the two words to myself many times, never knowing what they meant or why they held such raw power. All I knew for sure was that their use was able to freeze a critical moment, and instantly reverse the roles of victim and aggressor, accused and accuser. I framed those two words in my mind and on my lips, and looking up at Helen’s grotesquely distorted face, while clinching my fists at my side, I insanely shouted, as loudly as I could:


I first heard that new, powerful word in school, in a phrase that didn’t really make sense at the time. By the 3rd or 4th grade, I knew the context and culture of schools, especially the Catholic school we attended in the Silver Lake District of Los Angeles. I was also familiar with, and able to joke, tease, lie, and provoke desired responses in English and in Spanish. But those linguistic skills involved a certain degree of storytelling. Sure, I could makeup silly, repetitious onomatopoeic words to annoy and anger my younger siblings, but never just ONE WORD. Rarely did one word provoke such a visceral response as I witnessed on the schoolyard that day. What I heard was one word, used in a simple, declarative sentence that was DIFFERENT. By this time I had witnessed my share of arguments and fights between boys on secluded parts of the schoolyard. I had also been challenged, bullied, and provoked to fight bigger, older, and seemingly more aggressive boys. But I had never heard one word used like that, nor witnessed the resulting shock, surprise, and role-reversal.
“How could ONE word do that?” I thought to myself. I wasn’t sure of the answer, but I remember practicing that word with my friend Joey. I’d come to the conclusion that regardless of my ignorance of its exact meaning, I needed to have such a weapon in my arsenal of verbal armaments.

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I remember that moment on the porch with Helen with such crystal clarity that it could have happened yesterday. I can taste the coppery sensation of fear in my mouth, and the ball of anger and resentment hardening in my stomach. I barked out one unfamiliar sound, and pronounced a new and strange word that I did not understand – and for a moment the earth’s rotation stopped.

Helen froze in instant paralysis, her eyes bulging out in shock and horror, and the color draining from her normally smooth bronze skin. Her mouth hung open for what seemed an hour.
“I… I…I,” she gasped, as if gulping for breath after a light year of suspended animation.
“I’m going to tell your father!” She finally proclaimed, as if tolling a death knell, and she turned and stormed off into the house.
“What did you say?” Arthur whispered in shocked awe.
“I, I, I don’t know,” I replied in wonder at what had occurred. “But I think it was BAD”.


Why has this scene and that memory never faded, changed, or dissipated with time? The incident sticks in my head, like old keys in the drawer of my bedside table. I open that drawer every day and see those same old, familiar keys, but I can never remember what they unlock. I started this essay last September, and then I walked away. I had momentarily forgotten my purpose for writing it.

I first started thinking about the power of words, during the homeward leg of my stroller walk with my 6 month-old granddaughter, Scout (Grace Harper). She was fast asleep by that time, still grasping the thin, linen sheet I used to cover her bare legs from the sun. I was marveling at her rapid growth and development since her birth in March. On those weekly walks along Gardena Blvd, she would gaze intently at the colors, objects, and buildings that we passed, and her head would turn to investigate every new sound. She was also verbalizing all the time, going off on long sonorous riffs, while grasping and manipulating toys and rubbing them against her itching gums. I think it was while musing about these pre-language, vocal exercises, that I thought again of my memory with Helen, and the power inherent in words. I think the reason I floundered with this essay was that I was trying to make too much out of one childhood experience. I was trying to find an elegant link to language development, and discovering the gestalt moment when the power of words became manifest to me. What actually happened was something much more simple: a memory of a loving father who taught me about the use of words.


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My father was never angry or upset when he disciplined us, and the one time he spanked me (I later learned) was at my mother’s insistence. Disciplining with Dad was a Socratic dialogue – he asking the questions and making the clarifications, and I forming conclusions about my actions and behavior. When he appeared on the porch, with Helen and my aunts in tow, peeking over his shoulders and waiting to see how I would be punished, he simply asked for privacy and walked me to a corner of the porch where we could be alone. There he calmly and quietly asked me a series of questions:
“Where did you learn that word? Do you know what it means? Why did you say it to Helen?”
I recounted the whole story: my encounter with the boys on the school yard, my puzzling over and practicing the words with Joey, and my anger over being backed into a corner and accused of things I didn’t do by Helen. When I finished the narrative, he nodded his head and admitted, “Yeah, sometimes Helen can get a little carried away. But she had a right to be angry over what happened in the pantry. You had no excuse for using those words. They were rude, vulgar, and insulting to her.”
“But Dad, what does it mean?” I implored, still not seeing the connection. “I just know that it makes people shut up. I just wanted Helen to stop shouting at me.”


“Mi hijo”, he explained, “the meaning of the word isn’t as important as the feelings of anger, hate, and violence behind it. The word ‘fuck’ means ‘sexual intercourse’. It is the sexual act between a man and a woman. That’s all it means. But some people use it to show their anger and hate. It’s like calling a Mexican a ‘beaner’, ‘spic’, or ‘wetback’, or calling a Negro a ‘nigger’. It’s an insult, a put-down, a ‘groceria’, and intelligent and thoughtful people don’t say it. Helen was hurt and offended when you said it to her. You made her feel cheap and dirty”.
“I’m sorry Dad,” I mumbled, shamefaced. “I didn’t know”.
“I know you didn’t, mi hijo”, he said, patting my head. “So what do you think you should do now?”
“I guess I need to apologize to Helen and tell her I’m sorry”.
“That’s a good start,” he added. “What else can you do?”
“Well, I can clean up the mess I made and promise to stay out of the pantry.”
“I think those are good ideas,” he concluded, and then mercifully added, “and I’ll explain what happened to your mother.”


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Sep. 10th, 2014

Juggler on Air

Dead Poet

O Captain! My Captain! Our fearful trip is done,
The ship has weathered every rack, the prize we sought is won,
The port is near, the bells I hear, the people all exulting,
While follow eyes the steady keel, the vessel grim and daring;
But O heart! Heart! Heart!
O the bleeding drops of red,
Where on the deck my Captain lies,
Fallen cold and dead.

(O Captain! My Captain – Walt Whitman: 1819-1892)

Last month I stayed up watching the Dead Poets Society, starring Robin Williams. My daughter Prisa had posted a clip from the movie shortly after his death, showing the classic “Oh Captain! My Captain!” scene. It sparked my curiosity to see the 1989 movie again, and for another time watch William’s Oscar nominated performance as Mr. John Keating.


I should also point out that previous to my viewing of Dead Poets Society, I was in the middle of researching and writing a course outline for a pilot program on Restorative Justice to be used in one of the county jails. The program, which we are basing on Fr. Richard Rohr’s book, Breathing Under Water: Spirituality and the Twelve Steps, starts from the premise that we are all addicts, with addictive natures that incline us toward attachments, passions, and sins.  We are also addicted, Rohr adds, to habitual ways of thinking, processing ideas, and dealing with people and situations, while never being able to see or acknowledge that we’re addicted to them. He concludes that only by adopting an alternative consciousness can we ever be free from this false self, and from the cultural lies that control us. According to Rohr, the Twelve Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous accomplishes that task through brutal honesty, humility, prayer, and selflessness. He believes that both Jesus and the 12 Steps espouse the belief that “We suffer to get well. We surrender to win. We die to live. And we give it away to keep it.” This is the counter-intuitive thinking that is practiced by Jesus and by recovering addicts and alcoholics through the Twelve Steps.

Breathing Underwater

AA Big Book

After finishing Rohr’s book, I explored other books and movies that illustrated his points, and which could also be incorporated in the program’s curriculum. I read AA’s Big Book, and watched My Name is Bill W, with James Woods and James Garner, Flight, with Denzel Washington, and Dead Man Walking, with Susan Sarandon and Sean Penn. So the Twelve Steps and all Rohr’s spiritual ideas were swirling through my head when I sat down to watch Dead Poets Society.

Bill W

One can’t help being struck by the irony of Robin Williams’ suicide with the character he portrayed in the movie – a young teacher struggling to free a student, Neil Perry, and his friends from the stranglehold of conformist cultural thinking. Mr. John Keating offered them an alternative consciousness to see God’s abundant gifts, beauty, and grandeur in the world and people around them, and urged them to “seize the day”. By reintroducing poetry, he also gave them a language and a lens to see beyond themselves, and to use it as a vehicle for escaping the egocentric and selfishly motivated culture of a society that promotes only power, control, and wealth.

John Keating

As I watched the movie, I also noticed that it interjected countless aspects of God, or a higher power, throughout the story– in the music, cinematography, and the compassionate interaction of the boys with each other. The glory of nature was shown in countless scenes of woods, meadows, rivers, and the changing seasons. The joy of music was heard in the voices, laughter, and play of the boys, and their inspiring teacher. What I found most interesting in the story was the fact that everyone, each character, was free to choose – Headmaster Nolan, Mr. Keating, the boys, Neil, and his father, Mr. Perry. They all had the gift of free will, the ability to choose what they would do, and who they would be. A Twelve Step question would be, what was the motive for their choices? Were they choosing out of self-interest and ego, or were they acting out of friendship, humility, and love? On discovering that Neil had won the role of Puck in the student production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, his father angrily cried, “How could you do this to me? I won’t have it!” Mr. Perry sought to control what Neil studied, the way he used his time, where he would go to college, and what he would become as an adult.


Midsummer Night

Mr. Perry & Son

However, Neil, who ignored Mr. Keating’s sage advice to be honest and forthright with his father, could not allow himself to believe that those choices were his to make. “I can’t do this!” Neil cried out in anguish about his father’s plans, but he couldn’t stop himself from believing that he had no choice. He finally escaped his father’s intolerable future for him by ending his life on earth. He surrendered to his father’s will, and when confronted with the nightmarish vision of countless years of misery and pain ahead, he finally acted out – against himself.


Dead Poets was a tragic movie, made doubly so with the knowledge of Robin Williams’ own suicide. The movie ended with the classic “O Captain, my Captain” scene, where the students who were coerced into denouncing their teacher, stood atop their desks to salute him and thank him for his selfless efforts on their behalf. But as much as I wanted to believe otherwise, Robin Williams was never Mr. Keating – he was Robin Williams, an acclaimed comic and actor who struggled for many years with bi-polar disorders, alcohol and drug addiction, and depression. From what I’ve learned about alcoholism and drug addiction after reading AA’s Big Book and Rohr’s Breathing Under Water, I suspect that there is no real “cure” for either. Willpower and the best science that money can buy are not enough. Alcoholism and drug addictions are illnesses that can be treated medically and clinically, but never “cured”. Not unless the underlying fears, wounds, and resentments are identified and addressed in a ruthlessly honest, humble, and spiritual manner. I’ve also learned that AA’s Twelve Steps provides such a process – a process that is demanding and difficult, and, to my surprise, not aimed at recovery. The aim of the Twelve Steps is a spiritual encounter. Recovery and sobriety are byproducts of a successful program – spiritual enlightenment and freedom are the goal. The alcoholic and drug addict cannot medicate or will himself free. The old self must die before the new self can be free.


Tragically, I think Robin Williams found himself so mired in pain, illness, and despair that he took the path Neil Perry walked in Dead Poets Society. He couldn’t find an escape from what he believed was an intolerable situation, and he acted out against himself. All we can do is withhold judgment and remember him through his work, trusting that the God of All Mercies and Compassion, who tried getting Robin’s attention all his life through successes and failures, joys and sorrows, hasn’t given up on him either.

O Captain

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Aug. 8th, 2014

Dedalus 1966

Legend of the West

Who is the tall, dark stranger there?
Maverick is the name.
Ridin’ the trail to who knows where,
Luck is his companion,
Gamblin’ is his game.

Riverboat, ring your bell,
Fair thee well, Annabel.
Luck is the lady that he loves the best.
Natchez to New Orleans,
Livin’ on jacks and queens,
Maverick is a legend of the west.
(Theme song of Maverick: 1957)

James Garner died last month, on Saturday, July 19, 2014. He was 86 years old, and had previously suffered a stroke in 2008. I think I was saddened by his death because he was such a part of my childhood. Garner was the first adult T.V. and movie star who I truly related to as a youth, when I first saw him in Maverick in 1957. Bret Maverick signaled a new type of hero for me. He was not the cut-out, one-dimensional, childhood hero I enjoyed watching in the late 50’s, like Superman, the Lone Ranger, Davey Crockett, or Zorro. James Garner played a charming but complex, adult hero who defied simple characterization. Bret Maverick was self-deprecating, humorous, smart, and human. He was the new kind of protagonist who did not see himself as fearless, brave, or courageous. In fact, Bret would rather talk than throw punches, deal cards than shoot guns, and altogether avoid conflict and dangerous situations whenever possible. Bret was the reluctant hero who rarely “got the girl”, and didn’t always win. His greatest romances tended to be with women he competed with, rarely out-foxed, and always respected. With its timeslot on Sunday nights on ABC, Maverick was the first “adult” western TV series I was allowed to watch as a child. Programs like Gunsmoke and the Naked City were taboo to me, in those strict days of parental censorship. Although Garner shared the billing for Maverick, and alternated episodes, with Jack Kelly, he was the star who carried the show with his rugged good looks and personality, and made it a highly rated hit until 1960. After only three brief years as Maverick, Garner left Warner Brothers over a contract dispute and pursued a full time, independent career in movies. He was one of the first TV stars to make this transition successfully.

Bret Mav 1


I loved James Garner’s movies. Even on the big screen, he was able to consistently come across as such a friendly, likeable and relatable figure. He proved to be a formidable actor as well. He stood out in his role as a Marine captain, playing opposite Marlon Brando in Sayonara in 1957, was traditionally heroic as Col. William Darby in the WWII movie, Darby’s Rangers in 1958, and clearly captivated Natalie Wood in the 1960 romantic comedy, Cash McCall. But his real breakout film roles came in 1963 when he starred as the All-American “scrounger”, in The Great Escape, and the loveable coward opposite Julie Andrews in The Americanization of Emily.


Great Escape


The characters that James Garner played were the perfect models for me. As a teenager in a Catholic high school, I was desperately searching outside my family for positive male figures to imitate. I had outgrown the “good boy” types portrayed in Leave It To Beaver, Ozzie and Harriet, and the Donna Reed Show, and I was not inclined toward the “bad boy” types characterized in Marlon Brando and James Dean movies. Instead, James Garner offered a Third Way – not an anti-hero, like Clint Eastwood, but a non-heroic, regular guy, who was still good-looking, smart, funny, and could step-up, if called for, to deal with difficult situations. He was the type of man I wanted to be for a long time. By the time James Garner returned to TV, starring in the Rockford Files (1974-1980), I had outgrown my early need for role models, and would only occasionally watch his show. Interestingly enough, I happened to catch the episode when the show spun off a new character that would soon carry on the tradition of the non-heroic/regular guy. Tom Selleck, in Magnum P.I. (1980-1988), continued many of the mannerisms and style that made Garner’s TV characters so successful. Thomas Magnum was the Bret Maverick of the 80’s.

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Magnum 2

I suppose teenagers are always looking for people to imitate and copy who are outside their immediate environments. The men and women they grew up with in their families, or their circle of friends and acquaintances, seem too familiar and ordinary. Stories and novels offered me one method to study male characters and types, but television provided a more contemporary vehicle to observe men and women who seemed more real. I’m glad that James Garner appeared when he did in my life. He portrayed characters that satisfied all of my secret yearnings and questions about male role models. Garner became the dad, uncle, teacher, and hero I wanted to imitate and become. I’ll always remember him in that way. Rest in Peace Bret Maverick.

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Aug. 1st, 2014

Icarus Launching

The Truth Once Spoken

Valjean: On this page
I write my last confession.
Read it well, when I at last am sleeping.
It’s the story
Of one who learned to love
When you were in my keeping.

Fantine: Come with me,
Where chains will never bind you.
All your grief,
At last, at last behind you.
Lord in heaven,
Look down on him in mercy.

Valjean: Forgive me all my trespasses
And take me to your glory.

Fantine: Take my hand,
I’ll lead you to salvation.
Take my love,
For love is everlasting.
And remember,
The truth that once was spoken –
To love another person
Is to see the face of God.
(Epilogue: Les Misérable, by Schonberg, Boublil, Nate, & Kretzmer – 1980)

The idea of writing my own eulogy came from a movie I saw two months ago with Kathy called, Fault In Our Stars. It was a Young Adult (YA) melodrama about two cancer-surviving teenagers dealing with Love and Death. I won’t tire you with the details or plot of the movie, or my thoughts about the themes and metaphors it presented. Suffice it to say that it stimulated a lot of post-cinema analysis and discussion. I was especially intrigued by a part of the movie where the youthful narrator said that cancer survivors were encouraged to write their own death eulogies as part of their therapy. I was not aware of this practice being applied to young people. I’d heard stories of elderly hospice patients, facing terminal illness, doing so, and I knew that overly-controlling seniors, with possible obsessive-compulsive disorders, wrote detailed plans for their funeral and burial, even writing their own obituaries – but I never heard of teenagers doing it. Somehow it sounded a bit juvenile and pretentious, like Willie Loman glorifying his own wake and funeral in Death of a Salesman. I could see adult or elderly, terminal patients writing such testimonials, but not children. Surely only mature people who were close to death had the maturity to say something valuable about the dying process, not teenagers. Nevertheless, I was intrigued by the idea. After all, we’re all “terminal patients” waiting for our eventual deaths, aren’t we? What would you say to the living, which have gathered together to participate in this funerary rite for you? Why do they come, anyway? I doubt they come seeking answers to about your life. If I did write such a eulogy what would I say? The questions haunted me for the remainder of that day, and into the next. Finally, curiosity won out and I decided to try my hand at writing one, to see what came out. Here is what I wrote:

Fault in Stars

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First of all, I want to say that I really enjoyed this life. In fact, it was a great life and I loved it. I hope it lasted well into my 80’s, so that Kathy and I were able to spend a long, long, time together, seeing movies and plays, talking, traveling, and spending time spoiling our grandchildren. I hope I lived long enough to see Sarah and Grace’s graduation from high school and college, and watch Toñito and Nikki’s children grow up. I want to thank you all for coming today and supporting my wife, children, grandchildren, family members, and surviving friends who were able to attend. I hope they’re dealing with my death better than I did with my own father’s. I do apologize for the time and inconveniences my death may have caused, but I appreciate your coming for those I love and leave behind. Having said that, there’s nothing more I want to say about the events of my life. I’m also not qualified to advise you on how to feel happy, safe, or more secure, and less uncertain about death. You are on your own. I’m dead, and the physical tie that bound me to each of you has been severed, and will not be restored. The only temporal part of me that will survive will be your memories, aided sometimes by stories, photographs, and writings. I do, however, have some thoughts about what I learned along the way that I don’t mind sharing.


When I was alive, I was always struck by the importance some people, especially prominent leaders, politicians, businessmen, and wealthy individuals, placed on their legacy. They seemed to confuse the idea of “a good life” as meaning a life, or an inheritance, that is remembered and memorialized by many, many, many people, for a long time. After my few years of living, I finally came to the conclusion that a good life is simply one in which we love, and are loved in return. As the Beatles’ so aptly but it, “love is all you need.” But at the same time, love and a good life doesn’t negate the existence of sorrow, pain, and suffering, either in our own lives, or the world in general. I have experienced a few personal difficulties, sorrows, heartbreaks, and humiliations, but I have witnessed many more terrible tragedies. Those are the harsh trials that make living so hard, and so prompt many people to question the existence of God, and the power of Love. How can a “loving, merciful God allow so much evil, tragedy, and death to exist?” Learning how to answer that question always seemed more important for a happy life, than leaving a historical legacy, or an inheritance, that nations and families would remember.

Beatles & Love

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I suppose I learned a better perspective on a good life and death from Sarah Kathleen, my first granddaughter. I had the wonderful opportunity of babysitting and observing her during the infant years, beginning at 6 months of age. She is my best example of being joyous and living a happy life, without having the slightest fear of sorrow, tragedy, or death. As she grew up, Sarah experienced wonder, awe, and joy every morning we went for a walk. It showed in her face, her eyes, and her voice. I experienced similar flashes of such momentary bliss with my friends Wayne, Jim, and Greg on camping trips to Big Sur; with Kathy, when we walked, hand-in-hand, along beaches during golden sunsets; and driving home in the car with Toñito and Prisa, listening to tales of their days in school. Those moments, which happened too infrequently as I got older, occurred every day to Sarah when we played in the backyard, walked through a garden, or strolled through a park. I watched her eyes light up in wonder at each new sight and sensation – watching butterflies in flight, hummingbirds in midair, and the colorful splendor of flowers, ferns, and blossoms. I watched her discovering the joy of each moment, and seeing the miracles of life that surrounded her, while at the same time knowing that the possibility of injury and death lurked around every corner, and on each street and driveway. A minute’s distraction, a fateful turn of a car, or a driver’s sidelong glances at their cell phone, could precipitate a tragic accident, a terrible injury, or the loss of life. An anomalous germ can be accidently inhaled, a virus ingested, or an infection ignored, triggering a crippling malady, or life-threatening illness. These terrifying thoughts would sometimes flash in my mind as I observed Sarah’s wonderment of life, and dwelling on them could have frightened me into always taking extreme precautions or never letting her out. But these thoughts and images were not real – they were merely illusions, or manifestations, of my fears and uncertainties. Sarah dealt in the real – that was all that surrounded her. She saw The Emperor’s New Clothes for what they were, and did not dwell on what if’s, what might’s, or what should’s. Sarah was a focused participant in each moment. At her age, Sarah had no notions of mortality and death, tragedy or cruelty, these were theoretical concepts she had not been taught, nor yet learned. Cause and effect is an adult paradigm, and parents and educators build upon its foundation. “If you throw a ball up, it will fall to the ground”, is the start. Soon it becomes, “if you throw the ball in any other direction, it might hit someone. Therefore, don’t throw the ball, rock, or stick”. Parents and educators teach such generalizations about reality. We fence in reality. We give it boundaries. We limit life to an accidental and random beginning that comes all too quickly to a harsh and squalid end. However, for three-year old Sarah, life has neither beginning nor end – life is life, a wondrous continuum of joy and bliss, which adults cannot comprehend. So adults formulate generalizations, laws, and norms to control and understand it, and then they create consequences to enforce them.

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Young Tony & Kathy

kids @ capo beach copy

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When Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these”, I think he was referring to this idea. He admonished us to not constrain, nor limit the youthful joys of experiencing and participating in the fullness of life. Children see the realities of the kingdom that surrounds us in life. He was telling us that kids “get it” so stop trying to force their innocent perceptions into contrived adult formulas. Anthony de Mello, the Jesuit priest and spiritual director used the metaphor of “waking up”, to explain the attainment of awareness that yogis, gurus, and mystics reach through their meditative practices. He believed that adults sleep walk through life, completely oblivious to the grace and mystery that surrounds them. Awareness, he said, allows us to finally see and experience the kingdom of heaven.  We are already in the midst of its beauty and wonder, every day and every moment, but we lack the eyes to see, the ears to hear, or the nose to sense it. Instead we learn to generalize, define, and explain this existence by logical and scientific methods, thereby remaining asleep and unaware of the Truth. Babies, infants, and small children haven’t learned these adult lessons of living, or the fear of dying, yet. They are only aware of the continuous wonder of life. When Sarah turned 3 ½ years of age, I again saw her in that timeless state of grace when she was dancing in her first recital. Through the eyes of love, I watched Sarah gliding and swaying in harmony with the rhythms of music and movement, and lost to the laws of time and space. For too briefly a time, Sarah was in the kingdom of heaven, and back to that place from which she had sprung. The continuum of life – that is the infinite line of progression on which I believe Sarah, and now her then two-month old sister Grace, are on. They can’t describe it, because it can only be experienced, and not defined.

Awareness copy



I’ve also learned to doubt the validity of the adult truism, that there is no more tragic and unjust a death as the loss of a child who “never had the chance to fully experience life”. I wonder if the only thing infants lose by an “early death” is the adult pain of dealing with the death of their children. Despite our ability to measure and quantify life and reality, death is still a concept that adults struggle with – and honestly, so did I. When my father died in 1971, I readily accepted the adult equation, LIFE = BIRTH + DEATH, and I prayed that the Church’s doctrine of resurrection was valid. I’d been to the funerals of my great-grandmother, Granny, and my great-aunt, Tía Tina. I had seen their caskets, and touched their cold faces as they lay in state during their rosaries and funerals. But my father’s death was different. His death caused an irreparable wound in my heart. My dad, the man I loved, trusted, and admired was gone. And yet for many years after, I magically believed he returned. I saw him in cars, driving by me on the freeway, and he visited my dreams in a variety of scenes. Oddly, it was only when I became a father, with children of my own, that these visions stopped. The dreams continued, but the details of my father’s face and mannerisms became hazier and hazier, and less clear and distinct.

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The upshot was that for many years after my father’s death, I dreaded going to funerals. I avoided them whenever possible, and when I couldn’t, I hardened my heart to the raw emotions surrounding the proceedings. I numbed myself so well, that upon the passing of my grandparents, I don’t remember feeling anything during their services. Going to funerals was a duty, an obligation, and I separated myself from the grief and anguish that permeated the ceremonies, and which I had once felt after my father’s death. I was successful in this numbing strategy for many years, until the deaths and funerals of my sister-in-law, Debbie, and my mother-in-law, Mary. In a span of 3 years, I watched Kathy and her siblings struggle through the shocking deaths of a sister and mother. Although they continued telling jokes and stories to raise theirs spirits, they were bereft, confused, and in some cases, angry. I did the best I could at being stoic and supportive during both of their funerals, but when I caught sight of my younger brother Eddie at the conclusion of the requiem mass for Mary, I lost it. Feeling that he had taken the time, and come to see me, out of compassion and love, unleashed all of my suppressed emotions and heartaches. I was so relieved and overjoyed to see him, and hug him, at a time of such intense sadness and grief, that I was overwhelmed and I started weeping uncontrollably in his arms. That moment brought to mind a long forgotten scene that took place on the evening of my father’s rosary. I was standing alone, in front of the church, feeling forlorn and abandoned, when out of the darkness emerged my 3 high school friends, Wayne, Jim, and Greg. They came to be with me, to console me, and their presence filled me with joy, humor, and hope. Eddie’s presence, along with the added discovery of my longtime friends John and Kathy O’Riley at the reception, had the same effect. Those encounters reformed my attitude about funerals. I learned that they are not for the dead; they are for the living. It is a rite that helps us progress through the stages of grief (denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance) after the death of a loved one.

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Sadly, my own infancy has passed, and I never became a saint or mystic who was aware of the spiritual reality of God’s kingdom on earth. I was simply a man who had the good fortune, or grace, to be loved and to love in return. Growing up, it was only in those brief, blissful moments of joy that I shared with my parents, my brothers and sisters, my friends, my wife, and my children and grandchildren, that I experienced glimpses of the eternal infinity of love and the wonder of God’s world without end. After this funeral, it would be nice to be remembered and occasionally thought of, and talked about, by the people I loved and who loved me. Remembered in the stories you tell, or memories shared by photographs or the words I wrote. But I really don’t care. I have moved on to that place Jesus pointed to in his death and resurrection – that continuum from whence I came that is so often mislabeled heaven or paradise. I am home…
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After finishing the first draft of this “Eulogy”, I asked Kathy to read it over. When I spoke with her later, the first thing she said about it was, “It’s not a eulogy”. She was right. I had started writing without any research into what a eulogy should contain. In comparing my efforts against wikiHow’s 5 guidelines, I discovered that I missed the mark entirely! I didn’t keep the tone light and happy. I didn’t aim it at any particular audience. I provided little biographical information about myself, and none of my personal qualities or characteristics. Finally, I wasn’t very concise or well organized. All I did was mention the movie, Fault In Our Stars, and I shared my views on life and death. Upon reflection, I’ve written on this subject before (see tag: death) and it continues being a topic of fear, wonder, and speculation. Obviously, the movie got me thinking about it once again, and I felt the need to write about it. So, please forgive an aging man his ceaseless curiosity about life and death, and his musings about them. I have definitely learned one thing about this experience: I should not be the go-to-guy for any future eulogies, especially my own.
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Jun. 22nd, 2014

The Thinker

Uncrossing The Wires

Somehow the wires uncrossed, my tables were turned.
Never knew I had such a lesson to learn.
I’m feeling good from my head to my shoes.
Know where I’m going, and I know what to do.
I tied it up, my point of view:
I got a new attitude!

(New Attitude: Patti LaBelle – 1985)

The idea for this essay grew, as so many of my ideas do, from a conversation Kathy and I had while traveling in the car and listening to an NPR radio story. The report featured an interview with a law school president who had written a book on the one sentence that constitutes the basis of the Second Amendment – the right to bear arms. It was the author’s premise that our view of the Second Amendment had evolved, and that it has always been the subject of fighting and political debate. The framers of the Constitution in the Federalist Papers interpreted it one way, post-Civil War politicians another way, and the settlers of the West still another way. In other words, the author said, “The right to keep and bear arms, from the beginning, was something that was not an absolute right. It was based on public need and public safety, as well as individual freedom.” He ended by citing Abraham Lincoln as having said that “with public sentiment, everything is possible. Without public sentiment, nothing is possible. Moving public sentiment, in some ways, is more powerful than being a judge or legislator, because you create the context for what judges and legislators can do.” It was at that point of the story when Kathy made a comment that shifted our attention away from the Second Amendment.

2nd Amendment

Kathy agreed with the concept that public sentiment often guided public policy and laws. She saw this clearly in today’s American society where equality and civil rights are finally being guaranteed to gay, as well as heterosexual, citizens. She would never have believed such a sudden shift in attitudes was possible in so short a time; and she ascribed the influence of young Americans as pivotal. I countered by suggesting that the power of the younger generation had also been manifested during our own youth. Although the Supreme Court’s ruling in Brown vs. Board of Education in 1954 declared “de jure”, or legal segregation unconstitutional, “de facto” separation of the races, on the other hand, was still practiced in the United States of the 1960’s. It was not until the nonviolent demonstrations of the Civil Rights Movement that the inherent racism and injustice of segregation were finally exposed. Soon public attitude began changing and new laws, like the Civil Rights Act of 1964, were passed.

Civil Right Movement

Until that point, our discussion had been pretty theoretical – but then Kathy made it personal. She said that in the 50’s and 60’s many Americans accepted de jure and de facto segregation because racial and ethnic differences were visible and obvious. Blacks, Asians, Mexicans, and Filipinos looked different, spoke different languages, and practiced different customs. She understood how Americans could fool themselves into believing in these inherent differences if they never had contact with them, but what happened when those people became co-workers, church members, fellow students, or friends? How were they different then? What she found totally incomprehensible was the intolerance toward the LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender) population.
“If your son or daughter tells you that they’re gay or lesbian,” she asked, rhetorically, “do they suddenly become different? Do you stop treating them as your son or daughter? I don’t understand how people can believe that their friends, relatives, and children don’t deserve the same rights, benefits, and privileges of all Americans, simply because they are gay?”
I was struck by Kathy’s questions. They obviously hit a nerve, because the more I tried responding, the more befuddled and confused my thinking became.
“Tony,” Kathy interrupted with a smiling prediction, “I feel a blog coming!”


I like to believe that I was always tolerant and accepting of LGBT men and women, and that I recognized their plight for civil rights and equal protection all along – but that wouldn’t be true. My feelings, attitudes, and beliefs on the gay issues of the new century have changed, grown, and evolved over time, and my gay friends, my gay relatives, and my children have clearly influenced them.

Gay Civil Rights

In 2010, when my nephew Billy invited a group of his aunts, uncles, and cousins to dinner at a Manhattan Beach restaurant during one of his regular visits to Los Angeles, I thought it was just one more of his many thoughtful and considerate actions. Despite having attended John Hopkins University in Baltimore, living in Washington D.C., and joining the Army after 9/11, Billy had always kept in contact with his relatives in Los Angeles and Southern California, especially with his cousins. But when Kathy and I questioned our ability to attend the dinner on a Friday night, our daughter Prisa intervened. She stressed that it was vitally important that we go because Billy had something very important to announce. The fact that Kathy was his mother’s sister, and we were both his Godparents, made our presence essential. Then to add further mystery to the occasion, Prisa insisted that we be open and accepting to anything Billy had to tell us. At the time, I thought it was a curious request, and it made me determined to attend.



When Billy told us his story of sexual awakening and of his love for Jeff, his partner, nothing changed – but me. Billy was still Billy, the boy we watched grow up, and the man we knew, loved, and cherished. If anything, he made me aware of the terrible burden of keeping secrets, while knowing that society, churches, and the government were judging him as a mental aberration or as sinful. Our subsequent conversation gave me the opportunity to finally ask questions that Billy was eager and anxious to answer. You see, up until that night I had always dealt with homosexuality as an abstract concept that was never mentioned or discussed. Long before the Clinton Administration coined the phrase and the practice of “Don’t Ask; Don’t Tell”, homosexuality was “the Love that dare not speak its name”. That was the way “enlightened” men and women dealt with it, especially those in the educational fields, and so I never brought it up. I pretended it didn’t exist, even though I had friends, colleagues, and acquaintances that I “knew” were gay. We never talked about it. Yet Billy was not the first person to honestly admit to me that he was gay. That distinction goes to my long-ago friend Wayne, who stunned me and two other friends with that revelation in 1970.

Coming Out Party

Wayne was my crossroads friend in high school and college. Before meeting Wayne, friendships were seasonal. The “best friends” I made in 8th grade were different from my best friends in each successive grade. That changed with Wayne. He became a soul mate who refined friendship into an honest and expanding relationship. Wayne and I first met in our sophomore year as political outcasts on the school’s running track, running punitive laps for supporting Barry Goldwater. We were the only students foolish enough to raise our hands when asked who was voting for the conservative Republican candidate for president in 1963? Our youthful libertarianism and self-inflated intellects united us, and we maintained a casual acquaintance until our senior year. That year Wayne asked me to join him as editor of the school newspaper, The Viking. The time we spent writing, editing, and publishing the school newspaper in the Viking Office was the beginning of a six-year collaboration.

Grad Rehearsal2-1966

Viking Paper 1966

That year, our fellowship grew to include two additional classmates, Jim and Greg, and eventually Jim’s younger brother, John. It was a fellowship forged at a crucial time. All four of us were leaving high school and we were scared and uncertain. Wayne, however, seemed more self-assured, with a clearer sense of direction. Wayne was the pathfinder of the group, with a plan for college and life. He would go to Loyola University, live away from home, and join a fraternity. We, on the other hand, struggled to get by. I lived at home and went to UCLA, Jim and Greg attended Santa Monica College, and John joined the Army. Wayne was also the troubadour who ignited our wanderlust for freedom and adventure by convincing us that as young, independent college men, all we needed was a map, a Volkswagen bus, and sleeping bags. During our college years we traveled through central California, exploring Santa Barbara, San Luis Obispo, Big Sur and Monterey. Independence was a necessity for Wayne. After one year in the dorms, he and a frat brother moved into an apartment near school, but he eventually settled in a bachelor pad in Hermosa Beach in his junior year. He had girl friends in high school and dated often, but he became mysterious about his emotional involvements in college. He finally admitted to living with a girl for a short time, but I never met her. Ultimately, John (who had returned from two tours in Vietnam) took over the single flat, and Wayne, Jim, and Greg all moved into a nearby apartment on Monterey Boulevard.

Big Sur 1967

A migration of sorts occurred after Wayne and I graduated from college in 1970. John and Greg moved to Long Beach, Jim to Cerritos, and Wayne to Venice. We occasionally got together for card games and trips, but I felt that a major realignment in grouping and affections was taking place. Wayne never joined us for Saturday morning games of football, basketball, and baseball, and it became harder and harder to schedule and include him in other activities. We could not account for his growing indifference to “hanging out”. We decided that he must have gotten involved with drugs, and the three of us organized an intervention to confront him. Throughout dinner that night he listened patiently to our observations, and smiled silently at our conclusions. When we finished our testimony he told us not to worry, because he was not addicted to anything. In fact, he announced, he was free of the sexual repressions that had plagued him. He told us that he was gay. I pretended to take this revelation in stride, but I was secretly shocked and dismayed. I didn’t know what “being gay” meant, and I didn’t feel capable of discussing it with Wayne, or my friends. I did mention it to my father; but he turned my question around and asked what could I do about it? I wanted to believe that Wayne was on another temporary trailblazing course. Just as he was the first to leave home and live alone, travel around the state, and co-habit with a girl, I saw homosexuality as another “first”. Being gay carried an avant-garde mystique; it was hip, cool, “in”- and Wayne was always trying to be all three. Ultimately, I did nothing. In the months that followed our needless intervention, the separation from Wayne grew wider. I enlisted in the Air Force, Greg moved to Riverside to finish college, and Jim and John left school to work full time for a burglar alarm company. We lost track of Wayne until Greg rediscovered him in the spring of 1975 operating an antique shop on Abbot Kinney Boulevard in Venice, California.

UCLA Commencement 1970 A_2

Our reaction to finding Wayne was like recovering the Prodigal Son, we rejoiced and celebrated. He looked strong, healthy and tanned. He had been living in San Francisco but decided it was time for him and his partner to come home. He seemed especially eager to learn what we had been doing. Greg was teaching at a Catholic elementary school, and John was a paramedic for the Los Angeles Fire Department. Jim had stayed at the burglar alarm company and was now a supervisor and I had finished my graduate work at UCLA and was getting married in August. Wayne took the initiative in arranging a reunion dinner at his home behind the store. There we met his partner Kevin, a slim, sandy-haired young man who seemed smart, practical, and very handy at plumbing and construction. I believed that I had come to terms with Wayne’s homosexuality and was accepting of Kevin. The moment of truth came when Kathy and I were addressing wedding invitations and she asked me, “Should I write ‘Wayne and guest’; or just Wayne on the envelope?”
“Are you kidding” I exclaimed indignantly. “Why should we invite Kevin to our wedding? He’s Wayne’s friend not mine.”
Kathy looked at me oddly and remarked, “You don’t think it’s strange that all your high school friends are in the wedding party, but you’re not inviting Wayne’s partner?”
“No” I lied. In those early days, I was still immune to my wife’s reasoning and intuition. Her question annoyed me exactly because I did not want to consider that I was wrong.
“Alright” Kathy said in resignation, “he’s your friend, so it’s your decision; but it’s wrong”.
Wayne did not attend our wedding, and soon after his antique shop had a new name and owner. I never saw him again.

Wedding Party 1975-8-2BW

I always regretted my actions toward Wayne and his partner Kevin, and I blamed myself for his alienation from us. John and Greg have chided me on this point, insisting that Wayne also made a choice in cutting off relations with his long time friends. I know they’re right, but it still hurts. By the time Billy “came out” to us at dinner that night, I had traveled a long road with homosexuality. My education, which began with a high school friend I loved and lost because of my intolerance, culminated with a nephew who loved and trusted us enough to reveal the truth about himself. In coming out, Billy was not just revealing his own sexuality, he was also presenting his partner Jeff. This was the last push I needed. His revelations brought me full circle on the issue, forcing me to admit my past mistakes, and converted me into a supporter of LGBT civil rights. It took me 40 years.

Bill & Jeff

Jun. 6th, 2014


New Beginnings

The whole world’s broke and it ain’t worth fixing
It’s time to start all over, make a new beginning
There’s too much pain, too much suffering
Let’s resolve to start all over, make a new beginning.
Now don’t get me wrong – I love life and living
But when you wake up and look around
At everything that’s going down – all wrong
You see we need to change it now,
This world with too few happy endings
We can resolve to start all over make a new beginning.
(New Beginning – Tracy Chapman: 1995)

Late in May I happened to look at the kitchen calendar for June and noticed that the name Debbie was inscribed in my handwriting on the 17th. I recalled doing so a while back, hoping that it would act as a triggering reminder. June 17 is the day Debbie Greaney Parker died in 2003. I never had the courage to write about her, and I wasn’t sure why. You see, I have some very clear memories and images of Debbie as a woman and a mother, but they are inconsistent with the person who died alone in Sherman Oaks.

Deb 1979

The details of that day are murky and sporadic. The discovery was made in the waning days of one of the most difficult school years in my career as a principal. 2002-2003 was the year of the Red Team Scare. It was the year the school staff, from principal to cafeteria worker, had to implement an immediate academic reform plan to offset our inadequate achievement scores over the previous years. The school had undergone a blisteringly critical review the prior spring, which forced us to question our competence as a school. We struggled that entire year under a cloud of suspected inferiority. We were driven to prove to the District that the negative evaluation of the Red Team was wrong. We were convinced that we were a great school with excellent students and fine teachers, and so the goal of 2002-2003 was to show it on the May achievement tests, even though the results would not be known until November. Honestly, I just wanted the school year to end. The tests had been given, and I was addressing the aftermath of the urgency and pressure that had driven us all year. The stress to excel had been too much for many teachers and administrators, and I was looking at many staff vacancies and transfers. The school and its students, teachers, and staff were worn out, tired, and depressed.

It was on the Tuesday morning of graduation week, on a grey and gloomy day, that I received a phone call from Kathy telling me of Debbie’s death. From that point, my memory of events is fractured and uneven. The events sometimes merge with past and future scenes of rooms, faces, mortuaries, and the funerals of Kathy’s Aunt Mary and her mother. As best I can recall, Kathy told me that she was driving directly to Debbie’s home, and I was to call my daughter Prisa. The plan was to have Prisa meet me at school and then drive together to Debbie’s house. Prisa tells me now that I was very cool and detached when I called her, not volunteering any emotional information about her godmother, other than there was an emergency at her residence and we needed to investigate it. Prisa had just completed her first year of teaching, and I think meeting me in a school environment helped her maintain a calm and professional demeanor after I told her what we might find at the Sherman Oaks house. When we arrived at the house on Longridge Ave, and saw the Coroner’s van parked in front of the house, with two police officers lounging next to it, we stayed in the car for a long time – neither of us wanting to enter.

Three words always leaped to my mind when describing Debbie: elegant, fashionable, and glamorous. Among all the lovely Greaney girls, she stood out as uniquely beautiful. She was tall and statuesque, with clean lines, and sharp distinctive features. Kathy told me that Debbie imagined herself as Audrey Hepburn, in Breakfast At Tiffany’s, but I thought of her more as a brunette version of Grace Kelly, in High Society. I suppose that’s how I thought of her, until I got to know her better. I ultimately fell in love with Debbie on the day my son Toñito was born in 1978.

Beautiful Deb

At first, I thought I was handling Kathy’s labor pains pretty well – until they kept going on and on through the early morning hours at St. Joseph’s Hospital in Burbank. During that time, I think Kathy’s mother, Mary, and her dad stopped by to check on their daughter, but I was alone when her doctors came out to speak with me. After more than 15 hours of painful labor, Kathy had not dilated sufficiently and they were recommending a C-section. A C-section! What was that? I’d somehow managed to miss that chapter in the Lamaze childbirth classes we attended. I was prepared to support her back, coach her breathing, speak supportively while holding her hand, and ignore the pain-induced taunts and accusations she would fling at me for getting her pregnant. But I never expected this! A C-section was surgery – cutting Kathy open and removing out child. Was my son doomed to suffer Macduff’s fate and be “untimely ripped” from his mother’s womb? Panicked visions filled my head. For a moment, I mistranslated the doctor’s words to mean that they were trying to save both mother and child, but there was no guarantee that Kathy would survive the procedure. Were they asking me to choose who should live? After these first waves of irrational terror swept past, I managed to gulp down some air and listened more carefully. A Caesarean procedure was being recommended because the labor had gone on too long without sufficient dilation for a natural birth. They made the procedure sound reasonable and safe, and so I finally agreed – but I was shaken and afraid. I’m sure now that they also conferred with Kathy’s father, who was a general surgeon, about this situation. I was told later that he even had blood donors lined up and a surgical team on standby in case any problems arose during the procedure. But at the time I was shaken, afraid, and alone. It was at that precise moment, in the rainy, solitary dawn of morning, that Debbie appeared. She was bathed in a spotlight of golden radiance as she moved effortlessly down the corridor in her voguish outfit and stepped into the waiting room. Her beguiling smile was so gentle and reassuring, that when she asked me how I was doing, I fell into her arms and wept. Heaving sobs shook me, and she held me in her embrace until I was calm and able to speak. After I described what the doctors had said, she gently explained the benefits of a C-section, and the risks of an extended labor on mother and child. This was my first glimpse of Deborah, the certified, nursing graduate of Mount St. Mary’s College, and the mature and experienced mother of three children. I eventually let her go to see Kathy and check on her progress. I was fine after her intervention and reassurances.

Deb and Greg at Reseda

Deb at Capo

After Toñito’s birth, my relationship with Debbie changed. Despite revealing my fears and uncertainties about childbirth and parenting, Debbie wholeheartedly accepted me and loved me as a member of her family. I stopped characterizing her simply as a beautiful woman with excellent taste, and saw her as a reliable friend and confidant, someone you could count on for help and support, because she always showed up. This was the family trait I would eventually recognize in all the Greaney siblings – especially the women. But Debbie was the first. She would show up if you were in trouble and needed help. She showed up to family events, games, performances, and birthdays. She opened her home to all who needed a place to stay, or hosted family events that needed a large venue. She was generous to a fault and loved throwing parties, but she demanded honesty, loyalty, good value, and quality effort in return. In many ways her parenting activities and devotion to her three children, Jeff, Christy, and Alicia, also provided a model for Kathy and me. We followed her lead and introduced Toñito and Prisa to AYSO soccer, swim clubs and parish swim meets, children’s theatre groups, and female athletics. We could not think of a better example for our only daughter, Prisa, and we asked her and Mike to serve as godparents when she was baptized in 1980.


Sisters, Sisters 1

capo beach group

There was one characterization of Debbie that I could never understand. As she became more involved in various charity aspects of the TV and movie business in Hollywood, and in the community theatre group that formed at her parish church, she assumed more responsibility in the production of its musicals. A nickname slowly evolved over time and it somehow took hold. Mentioned at first in whispers behind her back, and then quite brazenly by friends and co-workers, Debbie was called “The Dragon Lady”, the terrifying chairperson, producer, or director you didn’t mess with. Although I recognized her desire for quality and excellence in this moniker, it was never an acceptable name for me. I detested hearing it, and I distrusted people who used it to describe her. The name confused her strengths for toughness, and Debbie was never hard. In some ways Debbie reminded me of my beloved Tia Totis, my mother’s closest sister (see Forever Young). Totis was elegant and smart, strong and demanding, and charming and funny. Debbie was all of these things too, but while Totis was tough enough to weather family difficulties and tragedies, Debbie was vulnerable. In the questions she asked me, or the advice she sought from me, when I joined her in kitchen conversations, helping to prepare drinks, appetizers, and hors d’oeuvres for parties or family events, Debbie betrayed a depth of doubts and insecurities I could never fathom. I can only imagine that these long hidden vulnerabilities only grew and expanded with time, as her children became more independent, left home for colleges and jobs, and married and moved away. What became noticeable was that Debbie stopped showing up. She missed Prisa’s games, Toñito’s performances, and family events. After a while, Debbie’s presence was the exception rather than the rule.

DGP 1 copy

The last time I saw Debbie was at her parent’s 60th Wedding Anniversary party. She was elegantly dressed and coiffed, but despite the heavy makeup, she looked tired, drained, and weary. Kathy and her sisters were worried, and attempted making contact with her later, but Debbie continued drifting farther and farther away. On Tuesday, June 17, 2003, in the only notations in my office notebook for that day, I wrote:

  • Call LAUSD @ 866-633-8110

  • Take car for service

  • Talked to Kathy – Debbie found dead @ home.

All written records of the events that followed were absent from my journals and notebooks.

60th family pic

My memories of June 17, and the days that followed, up to the funeral and burial, are a blur. The happiest moments occurred on Friday night, when Debbie’s 7 younger siblings met at our home for their private version of a Sibling’s Wake. Laughs were shared, family photographs were examined and commented on, and stories were told of Debbie and the Greaney family. Through the prism of eight pair of eyes, and the reflections of eight minds, a spectrum of scenes and images of Debbie emerged which were able to bring her back to life for one more evening – one more party, one more feast. The tears came in private, at the funeral, and at the burial. The only photographs I took were at the Sibling Wake and during the reception after the burial. Greg’s three boys escaped the somber and morose atmosphere of the reception and started a spontaneous volleyball game on the country club lawn. It was an idyllic scene of children at play during a time of grief and sadness. It would have brought a tender smile to Debbie’s lovely face.

greaney sibs after deb died

Wake 1

Kids at Play 2

After those gloomy final days of June, and the end of that awful school year, life resumed in the family and at school. Things began happening, and changes occurred over the summer that promised of new beginnings. A colorful wall mural was completed in the school quad, depicting the fulfillment of youthful dreams emerging from the spiritual and cultural diversity of Los Angeles. A labyrinth, modeled on the one in the Cathedral of Chartres in France was also constructed in the quad. Although interpretations of its function and symbolism varied among faculty and staff members, I liked to think of it as an instrument depicting the human journey through life; a path in which each step should be a timeless moment to be experienced, enjoyed and cherished. Eight young and enthusiastic new teachers were hired, and their melding into the renewed school energy of the veteran staff promised for an exciting year. It was also the summer that Kathy, Prisa, and I traveled to Chicago to watch Debbie’s son Jeff perform in Stephen Sondheim’s pre-Broadway production of the musical Bounce at the Goodman Theatre. It was a joyous chance to experience Chicago, watch Jeff participate in the career Debbie promoted and supported for her son, and visit with Jeff and Lynn’s two girls at Northwestern University. Finally, at the beginning of the new school year, the scores of the California Academic Performance Index were released for all public schools. The students and staff of Shangri-la Middle School had raised its combined score by 45 points, marking the greatest academic gain of all other middle schools in District.



Goodman Review


It’s taken me eleven years to overcome my denial of Debbie’s deteriorating illnesses, the shock of her sudden death, and my fears of writing about it. I wanted to remember her the way she was when she soothed my fears in the maternity ward of St. Joe’s. The way she greeted me, radiant and luminous, at the CIMA (Catholics In Media Awards) banquets she organized and hosted. The way she chatted with me wistfully in her kitchen, chopping carrots and celery, and spreading plates of shrimp cocktails before a party at her home. The way she always showed up at family events and important occasions. Those scenes and images were glimpses into the soul and essence of my sister-in-law Debbie, and that essence has never waned or evaporated. I see Debbie in her roses that continue to bloom, year after year, in Kathy’s garden. I see her in her children, Jeff, Christy, and Alicia, and their children. Debbie is with me still, and will always be a part of my life, and the lives of my children. She will be a part of our lives until we join her in the next.

Roses 1

Jeff and Lynn"s wedding


May. 16th, 2014

Wedding Pic

Backstory to a Name

“Teach me?” Scout said in surprise.
“He hasn’t taught me anything, Miss Caroline.
Atticus ain’t got time to teach me anything,” she added
when Miss Caroline smiled and shook her head.
“Why, he’s so tired at night
he just sits in the living room and reads”.
“If he didn’t teach you, who did?” Miss Caroline asked.
“Somebody did. You weren’t born reading The Mobile Register!”
“Jem says I was,” Scout continued.
“He read in a book where I was a Bullfinch instead of a Finch.
Jem says my name’s really Jean Louise Bullfinch,
that I got swapped when I was born and I’m really a...”
(To Kill A Mockingbird: Harper Lee – 1960)

Grace Harper was born to Prisa and Joe McDorman on Sunday, March 30, 2014 at 1:26 PM. Her delivery was a little earlier than expected, and she weighed only 5lbs 14 oz, and was 18 inches long. After catching only a brief glimpse of mother and baby as they were wheeled to the maternity section of Torrance Memorial Hospital, we finally visited them at about 5:00. The infant in Prisa’s arms was a small hooded bundle, swaddled in the pink and blue delivery blankets they use in all maternity wards. Her eye slits were barely opening, and she still had that flushed, ruddy look that newborns have.
“Not a blondie, like Sarah,” Prisa said, sliding back the pink and blue striped knit cap to reveal a remarkable amount of feathery, dark hair. She quickly told us that the baby was doing fine and seemed more inclined to eating and sleeping than crying.
“The only time she cries is when we wake her up to change her diapers”.
Finally reunited with her mommy, Sarah was suddenly less apprehensive, and became curious of the new baby everyone had been anticipating for such a long time.
“Can I hold her, mommy?” she asked, peeking through the collapsible sidebars of the bed.
“Not yet, honey,” Prisa said gently, reaching over to caress the top of her head. “Maybe when we’re home and your sitting in your special reading chair”.
“Would you like to hold her, Kathy?” Joe asked, taking the baby from Prisa’s arms and depositing the bundle into her grandmother’s arms.
“Oh my God!” Kathy exclaimed when she looked down at the small bundle. “She’s so tiny. She’s a peanut!”
To which Sarah protectively replied, “No she’s not! She’s not a peanut! She’s my baby sister, Gracie.”
When it was my turn to hold her, all I could do was repeat her name silently.
“Grace Harper McDorman, Grace Harper McDorman… What a powerful name for such a tiny, special girl”.



I really can’t remember the first books Prisa read on her own as a child. Kathy and I read to her regularly as an infant, and she was always close by when we read to Toñito, her older brother. She could recite the words to Go Dog Go, Hop On Pop, and One Fish, Two Fish; Red Fish, Blue Fish when prompted with the pictures on the pages, but I was never sure when she actually decoded on her own. I’ve always suspected that she read independently at a much earlier age than she let on. You see Toñito was the reading prodigy. By the age of 3 he could read through the books of Dr. Seuss, P.D. Eastman, Maurice Sendak, and Stan Berenstain, and as soon as Prisa was old enough to listen, Toñito was dutifully reading to her, as well. He would say the words and sentences, and then have her repeat the letters, words, and numbers as he pointed them out. At first, Prisa saw these interactions as play and participated fully. However, it eventually became apparent that she was backing off more and more, and ceding to Toñito the practice of those skills at which he seemed expert. Toñito was the independent reader, the student who mastered numbers and strategy games, and solved puzzles quickly and easily. Prisa seemed to stay clear of those areas that Toñito monopolized, and gravitated to the more readily available ones, such as socializing, building friendships, and playing team sports. I see this now, through the glass of hindsight, but at the time, I was too preoccupied with moving forward with their development. I ascribed their different strengths and interests as natural for a boy and girl of different ages, and Kathy and I continued promoting their intellectual, athletic, and developmental growth.


Prisa Magic Yrs2

Tony & Prisa in suits

During their elementary school years, getting Toñito excited about moving from children’s books to more adult literature was easy. I simply brought him with me to buy books at new or used bookstores and pointed out the many genres he could choose from. He was immediately up and running around from room to room, and department to department, inspecting books of every subject and field. In that rich literary environment, I also showed him the books and novels that excited me in grade school, high school, and college – especially in the areas of fantasy and science fiction. Prisa was another story. While she always wanted to be included in these excursions to comic and bookstores, she assumed a bored posture toward the books and genres I recommended. She would eventually meander into the music and video departments of the store and spend her time there. If pressed to select books to buy, she would ignore my recommendations and choose books by “kiddie lit” authors, like Beverly Cleary’s Ramona stories. While Prisa had clearly mastered all the essential reading skills, and applied them to school and homework, she wasn’t inclined to do much personal reading at home, and certainly nothing I recommended. I was at the point of giving up, when I decided to try one more thing. And my memory of the story goes like this:

Reading Boy A

Prisa was in the 6th or 7th grade when I came across an old, worn copy of To Kill A Mockingbird, by Harper Lee, in our home library. Thinking back on my first encounter with the Pulitzer Prize winning novel in high school, I recalled how the story grabbed my attention, excited my interest, and sparked my indignation at the injustices of segregation. Seeing the movie with Gregory Peck in 1962 only made the book better. The movie helped me visualize the fascinating characters in the novel, Atticus, Scout, Jem, Dill, and Boo Radley, and painted a vivid picture of the tired, old town of Maycomb, Georgia, where the story took place. Pulling the dusty paperback from the bookcase, I walked to Prisa’s bedroom, where she was sitting at her desk.
“Prees,” I said, placing the paperback on the desk. “I know you don’t like it when I recommend books to you, but here’s one you might want to look at. There’s a character in it named Scout who reminds me a lot of you. She has an older brother who annoys her, she gets involved in all kinds of adventures, and she is something of a tomboy. They also made a movie of it, and we could get the video if you’d like to see it first. I’m pretty sure you’ll like the movie, but believe me when I say that the book is even better”.
Prisa listened patiently, and even picked up the paperback and looked at its front and back cover. But her only response was a non-committing, “Thanks, Dad.”
We eventually saw the movie together as a family. When it was over, I made one more pitch for the book. I explained that the novel expanded the narrative of the movie, telling more stories, and providing more background details of Scout. Prisa confessed liking the movie, and even paid it her sincerest form of movie compliment by replaying it over and over again. But as far as the novel went, I never saw her reading it, and I dropped the matter. It wasn’t until many years later, when she was a sophomore or junior at Loyola Marymount University that the topic of To Kill A Mockingbird came up again.



I seem to recall that Toñito was home from college at the time, and the conversation got around to the subject of Prisa’s classes. She was in the process of changing her major from Film, and was taking a ton of English and American lit classes to satisfy her general requirements. The fact that they were sitting there, comparing notes on novels and plays was astounding. They shared titles, laughed about certain authors, and mocked the styles and antics of the professors who taught them. They even took a moment to credit their mother for teaching them about the literary concept of foreshadowing. I was astonished! Where was the indifferent girl who would leave the room when Toñito or I mentioned books or novels? Here she was, a college girl, standing toe to toe with her older brother, and disagreeing, arguing, and supporting her views on themes and characters of major novels and plays. It was an energizing and euphoric sight for me, and I enjoyed it immensely, watching in silence, until finally interrupting with a question.
“Say, Prees,” I asked. “Did you ever read that paperback of To Kill A Mockingbird I gave you?”
Her eyes widened for a moment and she exclaimed, “Yes! It was the first novel I ever finished. It’s the book that turned me on to literature. I loved it. I was convinced for the longest time that it was about me. I was Scout.” She went on and on about the novel, the stories, and the characters, and how it had changed her attitude about literature. I just listened with a satisfied, happy smile on my face.


prisa & tonito

Eventually, Prisa would go on to choose English as her new major and begin teaching English and Literature in high school after graduation. But I always remembered that night when she revealed her love of literature, and how it began with her fascination with Scout. I never thought there would be cause to bring up the topic again, until a few months ago, when I asked her if she and Joe had decided on a name for their new baby.


Prisa had just completed her second ultrasound procedure, and the sex of the baby was clearly known. Their first child, Sarah Kathleen, was named after Joe’s grandmother, and Prisa’s mom, after a long process of discussion and compromise. So I was curious where their thinking was with their new baby. Our conversation went something like this:
“Have you decided on a name for the baby yet?” I asked.
“Actually, we have,” Prisa readily replied, revealing that the topic was fresh in her mind.
“I’ve always liked the name Grace,” she began, “but I was also thinking of the name Harper. You know, like Harper Lee.”
“Oh my God,” I exclaimed, knowingly, suddenly seeing the association. “You wanted to call her Scout!”
“Well,” she said, blushingly,” I toyed with the idea for about a minute, but I couldn’t do it. Scout’s not really a proper name.”
“No,” I agreed, grudgingly, “but it’s a great nickname. Scout McDorman – yeah, I like it…”
“You’re going crazy, Dad,” Prisa said, laughingly, interrupting my fantasies of Scout and I playing in the backyard, exploring the neighborhood, and reading together on the couch. “Don’t get carried away. Joe and I talked about it and reached a compromise with Grace Harper.”
“It’s a great name, Prees,” I concluded. “Good job, Joe, I like it. But, would you mind if I called her Scout?”
“Nope, not at all,” Prisa said with a smile. “But let’s see how it goes. Grace, or Gracie, is a tough name to compete with, and nicknames tend to develop naturally. Let’s see what happens.”
“Well, whatever happens,” I concluded, “Grace Harper is a great name. I love it.”


Prisa’s right, of course. Predicting nicknames for babies is a risky proposition. As she pointed out, nicknames tend to develop accidently over time. Her own came from Toñito’s two-year old pronunciation of the name Teresa. I call Sarah my “Nena Chula”, and Kathy’s sister Deirdre, is called “Tootie”. But regardless of what she will be called, Grace Harper’s name came out of an enduring love of literature, and a fascination with one particular book and character. I believe every name carries with it the seeds of endless possibilities, and Grace Harper’s is a story waiting to be written.


Apr. 25th, 2014

Don Quixote

Doing The Best I Can

At this point in my life,
Done so many things wrong,
I don’t know if I can do right.
If you put your trust in me,
I hope I won’t let you down.
If you give me a chance, I’ll try.

At this point in my life
I’ve mostly walked in the shadows,
Still searching for the light.
Won’t you put your faith in me?
We both know that’s what matters.
If you give me a chance, I’ll try.

You see, I’ve been climbing stairs,
But mostly stumbling down.
I’ve been reaching high, always losing ground.
You see I’ve conquered hills,
But I still have mountains to climb.
And right now, right now,
I’m doing the best I can.
At this point in my life.
(At This Point In My Life: Tracy Chapman - 1995)

While driving to Palmdale last month, it occurred to me that I hadn’t written an essay about jail in quite a long time. My first thought was that the weekly task of meeting with inmates to discuss our common struggles to be better human beings, and establishing a consistent relationship with God had become too routine and satisfying.
“I suppose there’s nothing worth writing about,” I said to myself, thinking of the individuals who came out of their dorm cells each week to join us. Those smiling men looked happy and glad to be free of the confining walls and bars, away from the aggressive talk and harsh words, and the angry and sullen faces of their despairing cellmates. Our weekly ministry provided these men with a unique and momentary opportunity to be at liberty and at peace for 90 minutes on Mondays and Wednesdays. But then, like a dark cloud suddenly covering the sun and blackening the sky, my thoughts changed. I remembered Adrian, and how his actions had forced me to doubt my instincts as a chaplain, and question my opinion of the men I meet with every week in jail. I realized that I had willingly suppressed all thoughts of Adrian and purposely omitted any mention of him in my journal. I was obviously in denial that his actions were destructive and maliciously driven. All of my experiences in jail have been positive, illuminating, and reaffirming – but something happened a while back that shook me and forced me to reexamine my feelings about forgiveness, and the men I work with every week.


The first time I encountered Adrian, I was teaming with Isaac and working with our usual group of 20 men, with 5 newcomers. We’d gotten a late start to the session because an earlier lockdown had delayed the serving of “chow” for about an hour. A lockdown freezes all sounds, actions and movements in a dorm cell, and forces all the inmates to stay on their bunks until the All Clear is announced. So the men who came out to join our program that night were restless and eager to move and speak to one another. One newcomer in that group seemed particularly animated and anxious to talk, engaging me in conversation right away. He asked my name, where I was from, and what kind of program we were offering?
“How often do you come?” he queried, not seeming to listen to my previous answers. “Who comes on Wednesday? Do you show movies, or just talk?” he continued, not missing a beat.
Surprised by so many questions, I good-naturedly answered him at first, but soon became annoyed by his persistence and unwillingness to listen. He was monopolizing all my time and forcing me to ignore the influx of men who were arriving. I finally suggested that he sit down and I would address his questions when we started the sessions.

My unease continued growing when I discovered that he had chosen to sit next to me, peppering me anew with questions the minute I sat down. He was a young Hispanic man, about 20 to 25 years of age, with a round, moon face. He was stocky and short, but clearly muscular and strong. His hair was beginning to grow back on what was once a shaved head that still showed the tattoos that covered it. Those designs complemented the gang tattoos on his neck, arms, and hands. Reluctantly at first, I began feeling that his voice, movements, and speech seemed slippery, cloying, and suspicious in this place.
“Do you have any pencils?” he began, looking at the box of supplies I placed under my seat. “Can I have one now?”
“Yes and no,” I replied, sharply, hoping to finally shut him up. “Wait till the end of the program”.
Once Isaac and I finally calmed down the restless group of men, I noticed that my persistent young friend continued to be active and was now reaching down and fingering the contents of my program box. This was the plastic container that carried the pamphlets we used with our groups, and held the phonebooks, bibles, pencils, and reading materials we distributed to the men at the conclusion of each program.
“Excuse me,” I chided him gently, moving the box away from the reach of his intrusive fingers, “that is for later”. I tried hiding the irritation in my voice that was slowly developing into a feeling of open mistrust toward this young man.


Isaac and I quickly concluded that all of the men, especially the regulars, were in a jovial, light-hearted mood after being freed from the confines of their cellblocks and the paralysis of the seemingly endless lockdown. As each man introduced himself by name, the group loudly repeated the name in unison, followed with hearty words of welcome and greeting, as if they were old friends:
“Terry!” they shouted, after Terry introduced himself, “Hello, Terry! Alvin! Welcome Alvin! Greg!” they cheered, “Hello, Greg!”
This went on and on until each man in the circle had been hailed and greeted. Then another pair of regulars, Louis and Hector, stood up and instigated a minor version of a Baseball Park’s crowd “wave”. Around and around, the up-stretched arms of the men waved, as they stood up and then sat down. We finally calmed the men down and centered them to the task at hand when Alvin volunteered to start the program with an opening prayer.

I’ve always envied the practical use of prayer for bringing order and calm at the beginning of a class or discussion. For years I’d watched Kathy, my wife, and other Catholic schoolteachers and administrators bring quiet and peace over a rowdy or noisy group of people or students by calling them to prayer. The opportunity allows for a moment of reflection and the centering of thoughts and emotions to the task at hand. The inmates who volunteer to lead the prayer are always very effective at reminding the men of their past choices, the loved ones they left behind, God’s forgiveness of their transgressions, and faith in trusting God’s will in determining their future sentences or court decisions. Alvin’s prayer was the perfect preface to the pamphlet we were using that night. It pictured a man looking at his reflection in a mirror with the words, “TAKE A LOOK”, along the side of the booklet.

Take A Look

It was during the discussion about the meaning of this picture that Adrian, leaning over and interrupting my attention to the speaker, asked me yet another question.
“Can I borrow your pen for a minute?” he said. “I want to write some of this down”.
Dubious that Adrian’ seeming interest in the discussion was motivating his request, and annoyed that I had no real reason to distrust him, I handed him my Bic ballpoint pen with a caution:
“I need this back”, I whispered to him, sternly.
Later, when Isaac assumed the facilitating role, I looked over at Adrian and extended my outstretched hand, waiting for the return of my pen.
“See,” he said, showing me the sentences he had written on the pamphlet around the picture, and adding, “thank you”, as he handed the pen back.
It was at that point that some whisperings among the men caused me to look up and notice the blinking red light over the guard station that had prompted their comments to each other.
“It’s another lockdown,” sighed Manuel, another regular, sitting to my left.
“Okay, guys,” I said aloud to the men, trying to sound reassuring. “Let’s ignore the light and keep going.  The guards sometimes just lock the doors of the dayroom from the outside and let us finish the program”.
I barely finished those words when a young, blonde haired deputy stuck his head through the door and announced, “Sorry, Chaplain. The inmates need to get back to their dorms”.
In a controlled flurry of actions, Isaac and I were able to say a concluding prayer and begin distributing some of our materials as the men stacked their plastic chairs, said their farewells, and lined up by the door to return to their dorms. During this bustle of activity some of the men, Adrian included, asked for bibles.
“Just write that request next to your names on the sign-in list”, I said quickly, handing them my clipboard and pen, as my attentions were directed elsewhere. It was only later, when Isaac and I were walking back to the Chaplain’s Office that I realized that my pen was not in my shirt pocket or on the clipboard. I couldn’t put down a growing suspicion that my wily friend Adrian had taken my pen during the confusion of returning the men to their dorms.

The following week, I was paired with Justin and we were able to complete a full program with the men in the Maximum Security dorms. This time all 24 of our most regular participants were there, along with Adrian. Again he sat right next to me and put my emotions on edge by pestering me with a blizzard of questions:
“Can I have a pencil, or an eraser? Can I see your holy cards? Do you have any bibles? Can I have an extra one for my bunkee?”
The only thing I could think of saying to stop the flow of questions was a plea:
“Adrian, I really need you to stop asking for things and wait for the end of the program.”
He shrugged and gave me an oily smile. “Sure,” he said, “I can wait.”
I didn’t relax until Justin approached me silently and removed the box of materials that was under my chair, taking it back to his seat at the other side of the circle. At that point I was able to give my full attention to the men and a discussion that got off to a rousing start.

Sometimes the men seem to take over a discussion session, directing the questions and conversation in a totally unexpected way. The pamphlet we used that night was called, “Got A Problem? Let’s Tackle It!” It featured a drawing of a uniformed football player smashing his padded shoulder into a tackling dummy. The men immediately started talking about the need to admit their problems, and begin confronting the poor choices they made and the addictions they were enslaved to, head on. They also spoke of practicing acts of Christian Love and acceptance while in jail, instead of waiting to be free. But the image and topic that generated the most conversation was a drawing of another man looking at himself in the mirror. The words, “We Can’t Lie To The Man In The Mirror” were written in bold letters, along with the question: “What would the man in the mirror tell you about yourself?” That question unleashed a torrent of testimonies and confessions of past actions and addictions. To a man, they recognized the mistakes they had made and the awful consequences that followed. Terry, a short, muscular African-American of middle age stunned the circle of men with a statement of such raw power that a reverent hush followed his every sentence.
“I was arrested for murder one week before my son was in an accident that put him in a hospital” he began. “I’m not going to burden you with the details of my case,” he added, looking downward. “It’s enough to say that it was a fabricated charge and I was not guilty. But because it was a capital offense they wouldn’t release me on bail. My son died in that hospital, and they wouldn’t release me to go to his funeral. I never saw my son alive after my arrest. Even though I wasn’t guilty of the capital charge, it was my choice that put me in the situation that got me busted. The man in the mirror would tell me that my choices put me in jail. Jail is God’s opportunity for me to finally figure it out and get it right. Jail is my school. Jail is my chance to learn – learn about myself, learn about God, and learn how to put Christ’s teachings of love and forgiveness into practice. I can’t put it off until I’m out of jail. I’ve tried that before and it doesn’t work that way. That’s why I come to these meetings – to learn. I listen and learn from you, and you, and you”, he said, pointing to each man in the circle. “I learn from you and the chaplains who call us out to sit together and talk about how we can put God’s words into practice. Learning to walk the talk – that’s why I come to these meetings.”
The thoughtful silence that followed Terry’s declaration was finally broken when Andrew, a skinny, elderly African-American, with a short, grizzled, grey beard raised his hand to speak.
“Why do we come out for ‘church’, anyway?” he asked, using the jailhouse slang for religious services. “No one has ever asked me that question. I’d like to know what each man has to say.”
So around the circle we went, each man stating his reason or reasons for leaving the dorm cell to attend a session of what the men call “church”. The answers fell into four categories: learning to be better men and Christians, searching for a connection with God, fellowship with other men who share the same values and concerns, and escaping the angry, noisy, and aggressive dorms, for a place of peace and caring. However, when it came to Adrian, smugly sitting back in his chair with his arms crossed over his chest, his grunting response was simply: “I come for the pencils”.

Let"s Tackle It

Man In The Mirror

At the end of the session, after our prayer and farewells, Justin and I shared our mutual wonder at such a grace-filled group of men. As we were walking down the long concrete hallway, back to the office, and I was still feeling the glow of the evening, Justin added a new twist.
“You know that guy, Adrian?” he began. “You know, the one who said he comes to the program for the pencils?”
“Yeah,” I replied, “I know him. This is the second time he’s come out with me, and he always sits right next to me. He makes me uncomfortable,” I confessed.
“Well you should,” Justin added. “Raul, one of the other men in the group, spoke to me in Spanish and told me that Adrian stole your pen. He was bragging about it in the dorm last week.”
“You’re kidding!” I exclaimed, coming to a stop in the hallway. “He admitted it to everyone.”
“Yeah,” Justin replied, nodding his head. “That’s why I went over to retrieve your box of materials. I saw him going through your stuff while you were talking.”
“Unbelievable”, I said, shaking my head. “I always suspected it was him, but I had no proof. He just made me nervous. Wow, no one has ever stolen something from me in this place.”
Our session had run long that night, and by the time we arrived at the Chaplain’s Office all the other volunteers had gone. So we quickly put away our materials, logged in our data, and left quickly. Many days would pass before I returned to jail and followed up on the information Justin had given me.

A Valentine’s Day weekend, followed by President’s Day on Monday, meant that I would not be going to jail for 9 days. In the meantime, Isaac had agreed to cover my regular Monday night group and I would join his on the following Wednesday. We also agreed that he would show the video, Groundhog Day with Bill Murray and Andie MacDowell over those two meetings. Isaac told me that his family watched Groundhog Day every year on February 2, and discussed its metaphors and messages at dinner after every viewing. He had convinced Gavin, the Head Chaplain, that it would be an excellent movie to stimulate discussion among the men about eliminating past behaviors, making better choices, and changing the way we act. These themes were constantly repeated in our Finding The Way pamphlets, and they aligned very well with the goals of the Jail Ministry program. So showing the movie on Monday, with a follow-up discussion Wednesday, was our general outline for that week. I purposefully tried not to make any further plans about what I would do or say at the next session, about the movie or about Adrian. Over time, Isaac, Justin, and I have learned to always expect the unexpected in jail, and to go with God’s will (and the vagaries of the penal system). I wasn’t sure what I’d do about Adrian, but I felt confident that after discussing it with Isaac, we’d figure something out.


As it turned out, Isaac was very familiar with Adrian, and had experienced many of the same feelings and sensations about him. He also told me that Raul, the same inmate who had spoken to Justin about the stolen pen, had told him as well.
“So,” Isaac concluded, “what do we do now?”
“We exclude him,” I said promptly. “We don’t trust him,” I added, fearing that my initial response lacked supporting evidence. “He tries to manipulate us and takes advantage of our program, and the other men know it.”
“Maybe we should talk with him first, “Isaac suggested, gently. “You know, give him one more chance.”
“Fine,” I snapped, impatiently. “If you want to give him another chance, then YOU get to sit next to him and keep an eye on him. I don’t trust him, and I’d prefer him out.”
“Okay,” Isaac conceded, “maybe your right.
“Look,” I reiterated, “he stole my pen, so I’ll be the one to tell him”.

Since we were watching the second part of Groundhog Day, Isaac had made a list of the 22 men who had seen the first half. We planned to call the men out from their respective dorms cells, name by name. I explained this to the deputy at the guard station when I showed him our list, and alerted him to our exclusion of Adrian.
“We don’t want this man coming out with us,” I told the deputy, circling Adrian name on the list. “I’m not sure if he’s going to make an issue over this or not, but he has a tendency to be argumentative and persistent if he doesn’t get his way.”
“Oh, Adrian,” the guard acknowledged, reading his name, “yeah, I know him, a real jailhouse lawyer. Okay,” he added, “I won’t let him out.”
Even as I approached Adrian’ dorm, he spotted me and moved to stand immediately opposite me on the other side of the bars.
“Are you showing the movie tonight?” he began asking.
“Yes,” I replied, ignoring him further, holding up the list between us and calling for the attention of the dorm so I could explain our call out procedure.
“Am I on your list?” interrupted Adrian, slyly, as I paused to begin my roll call.
“No,” I said, curtly, realizing that I would have to deal with Adrian before continuing.
“I saw the first part of the movie with Isaac,” Adrian pleaded. “Why can’t I come out to see the rest?”
I put down the list of names that I had used as a shield and looked Adrian squarely in the face.
“Adrian,” I said calmly and firmly, “your name is not on the list because I took it off. I don’t trust you.” That was the moment I had dreaded and feared for the last 9 days. How would he react? What would he say? Would he make a scene, becoming angry and belligerent, or simply argue with me?
“Okay,” Adrian said, simply, “I get it.” And he moved away from the bars, fading into the dorm background.
Relieved, I continued with my general announcement, explaining the procedures and reading the names of the men we were calling out for our program. I did this at the three dorms and then returned to the guard station to await the release of the men.
“Tony”, Adrian called out, having reappeared at the bars and gesturing for me to approach him.
I walked up to the bars of his dorm again, acting calmer and more confident than I felt. “Yes, Adrian,” I sighed, standing across from him.
“Hey, look man,” he pleaded. “I’m sorry, you know. Can you give me another chance and let me come out?”
“I accept your apology, Adrian,” I said slowly, “and I’ll pray for you. But I can’t trust you after the things you’ve done. I’m sorry.”
“Okay,” he said with a final shrug, and slid sideways along the bars and disappeared.


I had one more encounter with Adrian in jail. It was the week after our final Groundhog Day showing and discussion. I happened to walk by the dayroom we used for our sessions and found it already occupied and set up for another meeting of some kind. When I entered to investigate, I spotted Adrian talking to another inmate who I also recognized.
“Are you setting up for ‘church’?” I asked, looking down at one of the inmates seated near the door.
“Nah,” he replied, leaning back in his plastic chair. “We’re having a ‘town hall meeting’. The lieutenant called it to bring the dorm reps together to discuss some problems.”
At that moment Adrian materialized by my side. “Can I talk with you, Chaplain?” he asked.
“Sure, Adrian,” I replied, hiding my surprise and trying to sound professional and in control.
“Look,” he said, when we were standing alone and out of earshot. “I know I can’t get you to trust me again. I get that. I blew it. I just want to be sure that you forgive me and that you’ll pray for me.”
“Yes, Adrian,” I said. “I forgive you. I truly want the best for you, and I will pray for you and all the men.
“Good, “ Adrian replied. “That’s what I wanted to know.” And with those words Adrian left me to sit with the other men in the dayroom.

In the Orientation To Jail I attended in 2009, when I first joined this ministry, the training sergeant stressed the need for vigilance against being manipulated, used, or exploited by the inmates. He recommended that all volunteers be suspicious of the men they worked with, and to refrain from any physical contact, such as handshakes or hugs. We were especially warned against doing favors or passing messages for the men, and told to keep wallets, cell phones, or personal items out of the jail, because they could be stolen or used by the inmates. While the prohibitions against cell phones, personal property, and carrying messages made sense, the suggestions to be wary of the men, and avoid physical contact, did not. Our Finding The Way program, and jail ministries of all religions and faiths, does not screen the men who come out to meetings and study groups. We trust that the men who join these sessions are men of goodwill who are seeking knowledge, fellowship, or a peaceful environment. We never expect men to attend our groups to spy, exploit, or manipulate the program or the facilitators. We do this without being patsies. We have rules and expectations in conducting our sessions, and we have excused and excluded men from attending in the past. However, we remain secure in the belief that while we are in their midst, we are safe, protected, and cared for, by the same men that we serve. So it took me awhile to process what Adrian had done, and determine how it might affect my feelings toward the other men.


You see, I often tell the men in our groups that despite the poor choices they made in the past, they are GOOD MEN. They are simply men who made bad choices, and who struggle, like all men, in and out of jail, to be free of addictions, bad habits, and vices that undermine our efforts at being happy and fulfilled human beings. But we are also men who must face the consequences of our choices and actions. We are men who screw up and who can make selfish and destructive choices. That is the human condition. This, in so many words, is what I tell the men in our groups – and I mean it. But I never actually SAW the poor choices they made, the exploitive and abusive actions they performed on others, or the addictive and destructive behaviors that precipitated their arrest and incarceration. And I was certainly never a recipient or a “victim” of these actions. While we are together in a circle, the men are in the process of reforming themselves. I only see them in a circle of support and discussion, and they’re usually on their best behavior. Adrian was the first man I experienced who brought his poor choices and bad decisions into our group and put them into practice. At first, I saw Adrian’ actions as a betrayal of my trust and good faith, and I was angry and offended. I was angry with myself for ignoring my distrust and suspicions, and offended that Adrian had manipulated me and stolen my property. Confronting him and excluding him from attending any more sessions was the right response, and I hardened myself to say the right words and follow through on my decision.

Now, after having resumed the usual Finding The Way program in jail, and interacting with our “regulars” over the last few weeks, I’ve come to the realization that Adrian’ actions actually forced me to “walk the talk” when he begged for my forgiveness and prayers. Even though his apology never sounded that sincere, he definitely admitted, “blowing it” – whatever that meant. But the last time we met at the “town hall meeting”, Adrian clearly wanted to be sure that I forgave him and that I said those words aloud. You see forgiveness was never part of my original script. I was simply going to confront him and exclude him from further attendance. That was to be the fair consequence for his actions. My righteous indignation had no room for Forgiveness. But having said the word in the town hall meeting, I couldn’t take it back – I owned it. I had been firm in my resolve to exclude him and forget him, but somehow, the words of forgiveness prevented the hardening of my heart. I did pray for him the following week, after listening to the men introducing themselves once again in our circle. I could never look upon these men with suspicion and doubts, and I refused to build a barrier of separateness between them and me. I’ve come to know these men as people who measure themselves by their actions, not their talk. In their dorms, violent and aggressive men who brought the same behaviors into the jail that got them arrested in the first place surround them. As they replied when asked why they came to “church”, many come out to be safe and among brothers, and many come to learn – but none come out just to “talk”. As Terry explained when he shared, if one doesn’t walk the talk, the talking is pointless. It is not enough for these men to talk about God’s love and compassion, and Christ’s sacrifice of himself on the cross for us – we are called to take up that cross and adopt Christian (Christ-like) behaviors. And for them, that means right here in jail.


Were I to employ the practice of Ignatian Spirituality in examining my conscience and searching for the presence of God in my day, I would have to admit that He was manifested when Adrian asked for my forgiveness and prayer. Sure, it’s easier to see God in the stories and testimonies the men share of their conversion experiences, or to hear God when I tell them that despite their actions and sins, they are Good Men and that God forgives them. But honestly, that final encounter with Adrian at the town hall meeting was my “God encounter”. It was my chance to release my anger and indignation, and walk the talk in jail.

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