Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Christmas Creed

Every few years, I repost a piece I wrote in 2007, just for people's amusement.  Occasionally, people get the theological humor of it.  Here it is again.  Enjoy!  And have a very Merry Christmas!

A few years ago, I had the opportunity to watch Disneyland’s Christmas parade (held nightly inside the park during the Christmas season), and was intrigued to hear Santa Claus inquire of the audience several times, shouting from the back of his sleigh like a tent-revival preacher, “Do you believe in the magic of Christmas?”  While this is surely just a folksy expression of seasonal merriment mixed with shameless self-promotion by Disney, I cannot help but think that the ubiquitous appeal to “the magic of Christmas” is a popular expression of faith that has somehow missed the mark.  Children everywhere are taught from an early age to believe in folk myths which are not at all supported by the doctrine of their religion, and are fully expected to discover their untruth, almost on schedule, much like a rite of passage.  And adults are even enjoined to maintain some semblance of belief —in the “spirit of Christmas”—not so much to promote the charitable and pious spirit behind Christmas, so much as to buoy their purchasing proclivities through the holidays. 

In the end, it is almost as if the insistence of belief in the “sacraments” of Christmas has become somewhat like a Christian creed, more important than the piety that the historical Saint Nicholas tried to spread.  And so in succumbing to this [speaking tongue in cheek of course], I urge you all to accept, memorize, and recite yearly this creed, much like the “Apostles’ Creed” that many of you remember from your Sunday school days.  If you do not accept this creed, you will all be condemned to an eternity of stockings filled with lumps of coal.  And if you do not believe in the magic of Christmas, you will all be damned to a life without Rankin-Bass animated television Christmas specials. 

Christmas Creed

We believe in one Santa Claus, All-knowing,

Maker and bringer of toys,

And in Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer,

Who was born to Donner and Mrs. Donner,

Rejected by the other reindeer,

Traveled with his friends to the Island of Misfit Toys,

And suffered under the Abominable Snowman;

But returning to Christmas Town one foggy night,

Was redeemed by Santa,

And now guides the sleigh pulled by eight tiny reindeer, delivering gifts in only one night,

To those deemed worthy by Santa, who judges the naughty and the nice.    


We believe in the magic of Christmas,

The residence at the North Pole,

Entry through the chimney,

The role of the elves,

Flying reindeer,

Frosty the Snowman,


And in the twice-checked list, infallible.



Saturday, December 20, 2014

The War on Christmas?

Over the last couple of years, I’ve heard the phrase “The War on Christmas” invoked more and more frequently.  Often, it comes from the mouths of conservative media commentators, but more often it comes from the keyboards of acquaintances on social media who parrot their favorite Neo-Con commentators.  (

Frequently, this phrase is used to deride such innocuous abbreviations as “Xmas”, suggesting that this siglum was only coined in recent years as a way to avoid offending anyone who wasn’t Christian, part of a larger movement to secularize Christmas and to remove the religious elements from it.  This claim blatantly ignores the fact that this cipher has been used ever since the sixteenth century, drawing from the common Biblical Greek abbreviation for Christ—XT—a siglum which was used by the very scribes that copied the manuscripts of the Bible itself.  The term “War on Christmas” is also often used to declaim the phrase “Happy Holidays”, as if that greeting was only coined by post-Clintonian, Politically Correct, hyper-liberals who felt that saying “Merry Christmas” would be offensive to non-Christians, ignoring the fact that this was a very old greeting used by Christians themselves all throughout the 20th century to refer to Christmas and New Year’s, as well as Boxing Day and Advent and the whole of the European centered Christian Winter holiday season.  Said phrase was even enshrined in the immortal Bing Crosby song, “Happy Holidays”, a celebration of Christian values and culture. 

But even more often, I find the claim of there being a War on Christmas attached to arguments over whether traditional displays and symbols of the Christian holidays should be allowed on public lands or in public schools, and so forth.  Often, it is claimed that non-Christian, or better yet, anti-Christian forces have gathered as part of a larger and more insidious war on Christianity and Christendom, and that this War on Christmas is more than just a petty expression of entitlement by those who are protected by democracy and free speech in our God-given Christian country.  [Irony alert] Rather, it is—to those claiming this—an all-out war on everything that we as Americans hold dear, the defamation and the attempted dismantling of Christian (read: White, European) values by the more swarthy and less Christian immigrants that have entered our pure land during a moment of compassion and noblesse oblige when we turned away and let “them” into “our” country.  In my observations, it seems that more often than not, the complaints about rogue Christmas decorations and the offensiveness of the ubiquitous displays of religious celebration often come from middle-class white liberals (often formerly of Christian extraction), and not the Jewish, Buddhist, Muslim, or Hindu citizens or immigrants whom these complainants are supposedly sticking up for.  I have found that, on the contrary, more and more secular Jews are celebrating Christmas themselves (i.e. the “Hannukah bush”, etc.) as part of a larger embracing of, and assimilation into, general American culture.  And many of the recent immigrants from non-Judeo-Christian cultures are grateful to be here and are perfectly happy to view and support someone else’s celebratory fervor.  Many of these recent immigrants would not want to rock the boat with incendiary comments even if they were offended by the Christmas decorations.  

But truly, I tell you that there is, indeed, a war being waged against Christmas, but the War on Christmas cannot be encapsulated or recapitulated by a campaign against a phrase or some plastic mistltoe.  And it is more insidious and deleterious than anything that could be waged by a group of disunified, disgruntled liberals.  And it has been going on for quite some time, perhaps as far back as the earlier 20th century.  This war is waged every year, beginning the day after Thanksgiving.  And now, it appears that it has come even earlier this year—on Thanksgiving night itself.  The war is being waged by large, moneyed interests, that seek to convert every American (Christian or not) to their religion, that of Mammon, that of worshipping and willingly allowing themselves to be enslaved by the Almighty Dollar.  The retailers, the conglomerates, all those who stand to make a buck at the expense of Christmas—they are the aggressors in this war that targets not the celebration of the holiday (for they benefit from that!), but the essence of the holiday itself.  Christmas—formerly a holiday that celebrated the birth of Jesus Christ, the founder of the Christian faith, and celebrated universal values such as charity and compassion and peace—has become largely devoid of all that in its popular expressions.  It has traded this in for rampant capitalistic ideals such as greed and excess.  One is expected to spend as much as possible to satisfy the whims and lusts of little children, who hardly understand the meaning of the holiday, so that they will be sated with electronics to make them seem as cool as, or cooler than, their friends.  And without fulfilling this obligation, one is seen as an irresponsible and unloving parent.  One is expected to spend the remaining family funds on gifts for a spouse who would be insulted and enraged if no such gifts were forthcoming.  But an occasional nod to charity is given in the myriad holiday TV specials, after the main character awakens from a dream in which they have become the Scrooge character for 22 minutes, and finally learns the true meaning of Christmas.  But those who are “less fortunate than us” are safely out of sight, only given a few spare coins through the Salvation Army Santa in front of various retail stores, merely to quell our consciences as we continue to consume, in order to satiate the beast that has stolen our souls.  And we are forced to work harder and longer to pay for this addiction to the approval of the beast.  

So where and when is this War on Christmas being waged?  For a number of years, Black Friday has referred to a tradition in which the day after Thanksgiving is commonly considered the first official shopping day of the Christmas season.  But who instituted this?  Is this a religious obligation?  Is this commanded by the Lord in the Decalogue, or is it hidden in some little-known, apocryphal, pseudo-Biblical text?  No, it was sold to us by the moneyed interests and it was bought—hook, line and sinker—by a public hungry for conspicuous consumption.  And so, Christmas became less of a holiday celebration of family and peacemaking and charity, and wholly one of exchanging gifts with those who need them the least.  The shopping itself has become our sacrament, our religious obligation, the beginning of our season of Advent.  But this year marked the first time that many national retail stores ramped up their efforts against the competition, keeping their stores open on Thanksgiving night, so as to elongate the traditional Black Friday.  For a number of years, many have been seen to camp out in front of stores for days on end, even prior to Thanksgiving, just for the chance at a “really amazing deal”.  But this year, retail workers were called back to work right after the dinner hour and were expected to work on Thanksgiving night, to satiate the hunger of the dragon.  But why even stop for dinner?!  Perhaps next year, the stores will even be open during dinner time.  

And then we—shoppers and abstainers alike—see images of people we call crazy, fighting with other customers, in the checkout line, at the shelves, quarreling over the last item, taking umbrage at their rudeness.  We jeer and criticize when we see it on TV, but then we are complicit on minor levels when we let the “holiday rush” infect our mood and we mistreat those around us in traffic, and in parking lots.  We are all susceptible to the poison, the “kool-aid”, as it were.  The stores and the consumers are all complicit in this.  If there were no customers, the stores would have no need to remain open, or to open a day early.  But the consumers have had it drilled into their heads—on TV, on the radio, on the internet—at every turn, that they MUST consume.  Every Christmas song has been re-written myriad times to fit the sales pitch of each advertisement.  None of these is sacred.  The original lyrics are all but forgotten, replaced with the lyrics from the commercial jingles.  We have come to associate these songs less with the holiday itself, and more with the activity of enforced consumption.  It is unavoidable.  Jingle Bells always sells.  

The War on Christmas is being waged by the least likely suspects, not by the non-Christians or the liberals, but the self-proclaimed defenders of Western and Christian values themselves—and Christmas is losing.  Many of you reading this will feel defensive, as if I were attacking you personally.  “I’m just trying to be a good parent,” one might say in their defense.  “I’m just trying to give my family a nice holiday.” “I’m not doing anything differently than anyone else.”  That is correct.  You have fallen under the spell of the Grinch, the Scrooge, the Winter Warlock.  But not by saying “humbug” or rejecting the “holiday spirit”.  You have succumbed to the Prince of Purchase, the enemy of the holiday who stands enrobed in its very garb, chanting its praises.  Before you point fingers at me and go about your business, secretly hating the holiday and its rush and its responsibilities, but publicly extolling its virtues, I ask you to think.  Do you not frequently feel tremendous stress during the holidays, as if the gift-giving were an onerous chore? When was the last time you performed a real act of charity?  When was the last time you truly enjoyed yourself during the Christmas season?  When was the last time you reached out to someone who really needed help and made their Christmas better?  

When I was a child, my mother and father would do a tremendous amount of charity leading up to the holidays.  It was how they celebrated the holidays.  And now that they are gone, I want to share this story with you.  We never exchanged gifts among ourselves for Christmas (or Hannukah, for that matter, since my father was raised Jewish). My father, a school teacher, would receive from the school nurse a number of names and addresses of needy families in the school district.  My mother would spend a significant amount of time shopping for clothing and food (at discounts of course) to deliver anonymously to these families prior to, and sometimes even on, Christmas Eve.  She would never reveal that it was from us; she would always say that Mrs. Flood, the school nurse, had asked us to deliver the gifts on her behalf—thereby protecting their dignity.  This would protect the families from embarrassment at having to face their benefactors.  And at times, we would stay and talk with the families.  The adults would have coffee and conversation.  The children and I would play.  And I was often struck that these families—known to my parents and me as poor—hardly looked poor.  They were not covered in dirt and coal dust.  They were not living in ramshackle tin huts, smeared with dung, accompanied by mangy dogs.  They looked like me and talked like me.  And I came to know that poverty often hides in plain sight.  These were families that the school nurse had verified were impoverished, but they hid it well—for their own pride.  And my mother, truly the driving force behind our efforts, as my father was a bit shy, would derive great pleasure from delivering these gifts to the families.  Being effectively anonymous, she would be granted the knowledge that good had been done and that the world was a little bit happier, but never at the expense of someone else’s dignity.  I am sure some of the families suspected that we were the donors, but most of them played it off as if they did not.  That preserved everyone’s modesty.  

As an adult, in my non-profit work, I try to continue this tradition, even if not in the same manner.  My wife and I do not exchange gifts for holidays or birthdays.  We are satisfied with each other’s presence in our lives.  But we have devoted our lives to charity.  Everything we do is somehow associated with charity, even our professions.  So I encourage each of you reading this, to challenge yourselves.  Without insulting or hurting your loved ones, instead of buying as many gifts, take a larger portion of your holiday gift budget each successive year and donate it to charities.  Pick local ones that will have a directly visible effect.  Pick ones that serve local schools and needy children.  Get involved in such a way that you will be able to see the faces of those you are supporting, but anonymously, so as not to make them feel uncomfortable about the source.  And maybe give your donations in the name of a loved one and let them know that you gave something in their name.  And get your children involved, too.  Have them help you shop for a toy to be given to a needy child.  Have them pick one out that they think the little child would like.  Make it an object lesson in selflessness for them.  Maybe take Christmas Eve with your family and volunteer at a soup kitchen or a homeless shelter.  Or maybe volunteer to deliver for Meals on Wheels, when many such programs close down for the actual holiday itself.  Such programs are often in need of willing volunteers for Christmas Day.  This, I assure you, will produce a holiday experience you will never forget.  

I challenge you to incorporate some of this into your life.  This is the only way we will win against those who wage the REAL “War on Christmas”. 

Monday, September 1, 2014

My Parents' First Date

The year was 1965. They had known each other in college, as friends.  Mom had always had a little bit of a crush on Dad.  He was Jewish.  She had such a passion for all things Jewish.  He was bright and sensitive.  But he did not seem available to her as anything more than just a friend.  There was always something, she later observed, a little bit sad and broken about him.  His inner sadness attracted her to him; he was a kindred spirit.  Perhaps she knew unconsciously that he had suffered some of the same abuse as she, in his own formative years. 

They had met through friends in the late 50s, while attending Adelphi University on Long Island.  Dad had been the president of the student United Nations.  They shared the same group of friends, or at least their circles mingled.  After graduating college in 1961, they lost touch.  1962, 1963, 1964, all went by. 

Sometime during these years, Mom had fallen in love with a brilliant, but distant narcissist named Garapet.  He was an intellectual, a bohemian who had emigrated from Persia, from a wealthy Armenian family.  Their first real conversation, they sat in a park in New York City and birds alighted on his finger, like some Greek god of nature, he was like Dionysus with his exotic looks and confident, free spirit.  She fell in love with him, though her strict Catholic morality prevented her from doing anything more than kiss him.  After all, she was a virgin and intended to stay that way until her wedding day.  And he wooed her with his debonair ways.  But predator that he was, he urged her to let him make her his mistress.  He offered to set her up in an apartment and give her the finest things, if only she would be his lover.  She could not abide by that.  For some reason, he would not marry her.  Was his family Muslim? Were they Orthodox Christian?  That was still a mystery to her, decades later, when she told me the story.  But it just would not work, he told her.  His family would never accept her.  But he told her that he loved her and the apartment was his offer of commitment.  She cried.  How could he love her and still make such demands upon her?  And so he cut off all contact with her.  He stopped returning her calls.  She was heartbroken. 

For weeks, she could not reach him.  Finally, she went to his apartment to confront him.  He answered the door, surprised to see her.  He did not invite her in, but spoke to her at the threshold.  She could see inside that he was entertaining.  In contrast to the rainy winter weather outside, the apartment was warm, inviting, but meant for another.  His guest, a very handsome young man, as exotic as he was, who must have been a friend from out of town.  With dark eyes and hair, he seemed South American, a Spanish prince, a descendant of conquistadors.  Absorbed in himself, he seemed unconcerned with what was going on at the front door.  Garapet explained to her that he could not give her what she was looking for, and that she would just have to deal with it.  Take it or leave it.  And so she left and went to her car to cry.  She cried for a long time. A stranger, a woman, even approached her to see if she was okay.  She would not admit that she was not, claiming that she was fine; she pulled herself together and then thanked the woman, driving off. 

She even considered for a moment giving in, putting aside her morals, just to be with him.  She loved Garapet that much.  Then, she spoke to her cousin, Nicholas, who was a friend of Garapet’s. They all had attended college together.  Didn’t she know?  Nicholas asked her.  Garapet was dating the man she saw in the apartment.  Had he not told her?  Garapet was bisexual.  She was stunned.  In those days, this was still considered to be very avant garde and was largely unheard of.  But even still, with her crowd of bohemian friends, this was not what shocked her.  After all, their friend Corey was gay and it fazed none of them.  It was Garapet’s secretiveness that hurt her.  That she was not his only love, that he had lied to her and kept this from her.  That was what stunned and injured her.  And so, the beautiful man she saw inside the apartment was her competition, as she described it.  And he was some pretty stiff competition, she would later joke.  As beautiful as my mother was, in my eyes, I can only imagine what a beautiful specimen of manhood he must have been to garner that kind of attention.  And so she resolved within herself never to love another man again.  For weeks, months, she could not forgive herself.  Time went by and she received a salient piece of advice from a friend of hers, an elegantly mannered and highly cultured friend from Africa named Tobias Mechekana.  He said to her, pithily, “Barbie,” as he called her with his rolled Rs and poised embouchure, “Do not be afraid of every pair of pants you see.”  This advice from a wise friend convinced her of her folly.  And she resolved that maybe, just maybe, if the right man came along, she would open her heart again. 

And in the early months of winter—in January, 1965—Richard Greenberg called her, out of the blue.  A few weeks earlier, he had run into two mutual friends at the New York Public Library and inquired if Barbara Merget was still unmarried.  One of them, Bruce, said she was and gave Richard her phone number.  When he called, they talked for hours, like old friends.  She agreed to go with him on a date. 

And so on this cold, January evening, he picked her up in his car and took her to a restaurant in Nassau County called Andre’s.  It was a French restaurant, swanky, the best he could afford, which wasn’t much on his salary as a reimbursement agent at the state mental hospital.  That wasn’t what he wanted to be doing, but it was a living.  And so he saved up his money and took her out. 

The restaurant was a little bit dark, an attempt at mood lighting.  It was a bit hard to see each other, but they did not care.  Even the fine French food, replete with butter and cream, as good as it was, paled in comparison to the conversation.  As they sat across the table from each other, engaged in lively and brilliant discussion, they made a connection like they had never been able to before, with each other or with anyone else.  Dad said to his date: “I want you to know that I’m really enjoying myself.  The company is particularly delightful.” 

“Well, they’ll be very happy to hear that,” she responded wryly, almost deliberately avoiding the compliment, as if she had not even realized that the compliment was meant for her.   Her humility was charming to him. 

When they left, exiting the back entrance of the restaurant which opened out onto the parking lot in the rear, there was “black ice” on the white concrete back steps.  Mom’s shoe caught a little bit of the ice and she slipped down several of the concrete steps, and wound up sitting in the snow and ice that covered the black top of the parking lot, with a wet bottom.  The maître-d’ witnessed, having stood by to see his guests off, and hurriedly rushed down the steps to her aid, fearing a lawsuit and for the establishment’s reputation, as well as expressing genuine concern about her well-being.  Dad had rushed ahead of him, already at her side.  And she just laughed.  Her bottom was a little bit bruised, along with the dampness, but she was unhurt.  Just her pride.  And she laughed at her own clumsiness.  And as the maître d’ tried to help her to her feet, she just sat there and laughed in the cold, Long Island winter night, the air crisp with a smidge of moisture from the last snow that adorned the ground.  And the blackness of the night sky was pierced by the street lamps surrounding the parking lot, like spotlights on the crucial scene in a romance movie.

Dad watched this marvelous creature whom he had never fully noticed during their college years, so full of verve and joy and humor and brilliance.  At that moment, he had fallen in love with her.  And I, hearing this story so many years later, fell a little bit in love with her myself. 


Sunday, August 31, 2014

Excerpt from my next book, The Exile

A friend and academic colleague named Lydia gently encouraged me to share more of my writing. After dispensing with the excuses of why I haven't posted more here, being as overextended as I am, I decided to share an excerpt from my next book, The Exile, currently in its final stages.  The following is a narrative of one of the last times I saw my father in August, 2012, just prior to his ultimate hospitalization and death. [Re-edited May 23, 2015]


Saying Goodbye to Dad

In August, 2012, while I was in New York visiting my aging parents, we had to hospitalize my dad, when his progressing dementia caused him to become violent with Mom.  He no longer recognized her, often thinking she was a mean intruder named Ruth.  One night, as she tried to guide him to the bathroom in his stupor, he struck her.  I had to call 911—for the safety of both of them.  After the next couple of months of inpatient observation at the VA, we were forced to finally settle him into a small, modest nursing home that Mom had described as Little House on the Prairie meets retirement home. 

The final night I was in New York for that trip, Mom and I went to the Woodbridge Home to see Dad.  He was a bit tired and didn’t socialize with us very long.  He sat in the chair in his room, mostly. We talked with him for a bit after getting him to the bathroom, which was always an endeavor.  We had arrived fairly late, having to handle chores during the day, and so it was already about 8:30 PM when Dad started to fall asleep in his chair.  I coaxed him to let me move him to the bed.  He did so with relatively little resistance, but the five to six foot distance was still difficult on his legs. 

Mom and I got him under the covers, his shoes off but his daytime clothing still on.  We fixed the pillows behind his head; he needed two, with that ever present forward tilt to his neck.  He was asleep in nearly no time at all, like a tired little boy.  As Mom slumped in a chair behind me, struck with exhaustion from the day’s chores including her cancer treatments, I stood over Dad and watched him for a long time.  Imagining myself laying on hands, as many spiritual communities do, I stood over him, sharing my energy with him, optimistically wishing that it would somehow contribute to his healing, a complete recovery of his body and mind.  And soon, I could no longer stand above him like that, so I got down on my knees and gave him numerous kisses on the top of his head, where his bald pate had shown through hair that was still largely dark, raven colored.  I stroked the top of his head as he slept soundly, rarely stirring except for a smile to acknowledge that I was there.  He breathed gently.

I stared at every feature of his face, still so very young, like a man still in his sixties, ten or more years his junior.  I studied the features that he had inherited from his mother, and those from his father.  I noticed those that he shared with me, his son.  I noticed how his face had become a little bit fatter from the antipsychotic medications the doctors now had him on, causing his girth to increase over the last month.  I thought about how much I loved him, how much he meant to me; that even though there were times when we did not really connect in my youth, he was always there for me, ready to listen.  He was ever my father, one of the gentlest people I had ever met, which made it so shocking when his delirium caused him to attack my mother, or continue to express himself through violent episodes while hospitalized. 

I watched every breath and I considered what it would be like to lose him.  I knew that at some point in my life, I would have to deal with that, but I prayed vehemently that it would not be soon.  I was grateful that I had been there during the episode in which he had to be hospitalized; that I was not in California to receive the call from a stranger, or even a family friend; that I was there to witness it and help ameliorate it myself.  I was grateful that nothing tragic had happened while I was not present.  I had always prayed that I would never have to receive another phone call informing me of a tragedy.  I always prayed that my parents would leave this world with me in the same room; that I would be there to hold their hands during the moment that each of them passed.  And then a sudden wave of fear came over me, musing that if he were to pass, that now might be the time—while I was still in NY.  I watched his breathing.  It was steady.  A few times it slowed or became imperceptible to me, and I became terrified.  Seeing him continue to breathe, the emotion passed and I considered myself silly to have such thoughts.  Hoping to effect good fortune, through the oft-cited “law of attraction”, I mustered up all my gratitude that I had him in my life for as long as I did, knowing that others did not have fathers for very long at all.  I whispered to him, while he slept, how much I loved him; that I was so grateful he was my daddy.  And I begged him to stay and not to leave us yet, telling him that I wanted more years with him, that I still needed to give him grandchildren.  That it would be a shame for a man people were already calling “Pops” to have no grandchildren to justify that moniker. 

I keenly felt the potential for loss, what I was every moment on the verge of losing.  In some ways, I had already lost him, his mind no longer the same, and he no longer the same daddy that I knew.  Welling up with tears, I wept by his bedside, pleading silently for him to return to us, speaking these words with all the love that had ever been held by a son for his father, like Aeneas carrying his elderly father Anchises on his shoulder, while fleeing from the burning city of Troy.  Like some Greek hero readying himself to descend into the depths of Hades to retrieve the soul of his father, I pleaded with silent screams, just barely audible as whimpering sniffles and whispers.  And I prayed silently, “Please God, bring him back to us.  I don’t want to lose him just yet.” 

And at that moment, I began to connect with all the pain and loss of every son (or daughter) that had lost their daddy at war, or at sea, or in a collapsed mineshaft.  Every child that had lost their daddy to disease or to forced labor, or to the bullet of an invading army.  Singing in my heart, “Daddy, I hardly knew ye”, substituting “Johnny” in my variation of the 19th century song, I was reaching out across time to those whose losses of a father paralleled mine.  I felt a scream well up in me, first silently, and then begging, straining to get out my throat and into my mouth and on my tongue, jaws wide open, sound reverberating off buildings, echoing the loss that was felt throughout the ages by all of these children, my siblings in loss.  And it seemed funny, almost embarrassing, to me that I was already 41 at the time (and he 77), decades older than these children of the ages, and that I still felt the keen sense of loss—or the potential thereof—by one so young. 

And I felt unable—much more than unwilling—to leave his bedside.  Like the night in 2003 when I finally moved out of my grad student apartment where I had been for several years, where I had survived a nearly fatal bout of meningitis, and my parents had come out to California on the spur of the moment to nurse me back to health and then spent two months there, sleeping in my living room on a fold out bed.  At the end of my time in that apartment, I clung to the wall, as if hugging an old friend, and stayed there alone well into the night, sitting on the floor of an empty, swept and mopped apartment, not yet ready to let go.  Just like that night, I knelt by my father’s bedside, showering him with all the love I had to give for this man that sired and raised me.  And I wished I could do more for him.  But I knew that at some point I would have to go, since I still had to pack for the next day’s trip.  Knowing that there would never be a good time to leave, I just forced myself, duty bound, to get up and, with my mother in tow, to head toward the door.  We said our goodbyes to the nurses’ aides, thanking them profusely, with heartfelt gratitude, and we left. 

Just over a month later, Dad suffered a heart attack.  I urgently flew back to New York again to be at his bedside, thinking that I might not even arrive to see him alive.  But he did survive it and I stayed just under two weeks before I began to fear that if I missed any more work, my job would be in jeopardy.  So when he showed slight improvement, I fooled myself into thinking that it would be safe to go back to Los Angeles, just briefly, promising him that I would return again as soon as possible.  Still unable to speak, having just been taken off a ventilator, he nodded his assent.  And so I returned to L.A. Within a few days, on the eve of Hurricane Sandy, he was dead.  I had missed my chance to hold his hand as he died.  Only a few weeks later, I returned to say the Kaddish at his memorial.


Monday, June 2, 2014


Today is my second day on a business trip to the great state of Nebraska, where I am consulting with York College, assisting in building a museum of ancient history.  The project has been funded by a dear friend of mine who is an example of a very generous and righteous person who knows that his wealth was meant not only for him, but that he is the steward of wealth given to him by Providence in order to improve the world.  I am grateful to consider him a friend and to have the opportunity to be part of this project.  

While I have been here, receiving the gentle hospitality of the Nebraskans, I have come across aspects of the culture that I would never have imagined.  I did already know that home prices in the Midwest are significantly lower than in the coastal cities I am usually associated with (L.A. and N.Y. to be specific), but I never knew how nice a home you could buy for a pittance.  Our host, the kind and generous president of York College, informed me that one could obtain a decent home here for about $45,000.  During our evening drive around the Town of York, and its environs this evening, the largest and most beautiful house we saw he estimated at around $300,000.  One cannot even get into a “decent” house in the most run-down areas of L.A. for one tenth of the price they are here!  Even after the housing bubble burst, home ownership is still way out of reach for most average earners.  Why?  Because we have been convinced that that’s what they’re worth, and someone is willing to pay it.  In Nebraska, the same house, with much more property, in a safer area, with a slower paced lifestyle, in an area with a significantly lower cost of living—valued at one tenth the amount of its L.A. counterpart, just because of the popularity of the latter’s location.  Sounds like a big con game to me.  

And that’s just what I’d like to focus on in this post: con games.  When I asked Dr. Eckman how many of the 35 faculty employed at York College were full-time, and how many were part-time adjuncts, he replied that about 31 of them were full-time.  “Very few of them are part-time,” he replied.  “It’s difficult for us to find qualified adjuncts here.”  He then mentioned one or two who worked for them, among them a medical doctor and another, a physicist, who had just passed away.  The impression I got was that they were “traditional adjuncts”, experts in their fields who were eligible to teach part-time to expand the students’ horizons and to give them knowledge that they would not otherwise obtain from full-time faculty.  I told him that I found this admirable.  This reminded me of something pointed out to me elsewhere:  that often it is difficult for smaller colleges in rural or remote areas to fill their faculty with adjuncts, as more urban colleges do—and particularly more established  and financially stable ones.  It is these larger schools, in areas with a larger population of adjuncts to draw from, that seem to deliberately manufacture a cover story—crying poverty, or a need to be “more flexible”—and exploit the local population of scholars, who are more numerous in that area and are more susceptible to big business practices.  In more rural areas, they cannot afford to be that dishonest and, perhaps, they realize that it is neither in their best interest in the long run, nor is it a just and admirable practice.  

So, a school like York, with only 500 students, can afford to keep a faculty to student ratio of approximately 14 to 1 and not rely excessively and exploitatively upon adjunct labor?  Good for them!  So, if they can do it, why can’t larger schools, like USC or even my own employer, Loyola Marymount University?  This, of course, made me think about the current campaign to unionize the adjunct faculty at LMU, of which I am among of the leadership.  Perhaps York would be an example of a place that did not need a union.  They appear to treat their faculty well.  Of course, I am an outsider, and I cannot speak about what I do not know first-hand.  But with the resources they have, certainly more limited than LMU or USC, they keep their focus where it needs to be: student learning conditions.  And as many of us in this growing national movement to reform higher education and stop “adjunctification” of higher education have said, “Faculty working conditions are student learning conditions.”  Perhaps our big city schools can learn something from these small town, Midwestern colleges.  But my eye-opening experience did not stop there.  

Not only does the Town of York have an extremely low crime rate, and affordable housing, but Dr. Eckman noted numerous instances in which the students regularly volunteer their time to better the lives of the residents, not least of which were their yearly excursions to paint the houses of the local elderly and infirm.  And a number of Christian sojourners (retired missionaries and preachers) annually volunteer their time to paint and do other service at the school.  This, dear reader, is Christianity at its best.  A Christian school that sets a positive example to the community and students, and really takes care of its most susceptible.  

But what’s more is that I learned that the great state of Nebraska has banned corporate agriculture.  Any large farms must be farmed by families, not big “agri-business”.  At first, I thought I misheard Dr. Eckman.  Could it be?  A statistically Republican state putting limits on big business?!  The only down side is that many farmers are forced to farm plots two and three times the size of those farmed by earlier generations—in order to make ends meet—on account of the cost of the machinery involved in modern farming operations.  But to combat this, there are things called Farmers’ Cooperatives.  As a big city Los Angeleno (neither by birth or by choice, of course—transplanted New Yorker that I am), these are phenomena that I would know nothing about.  But the president explained to me that these cooperatives, which are popular with some modern farmers, help to empower the individual farmers by sticking together with their neighbors and negotiating better selling prices for their produce, and better buying prices for their equipment and supplies.  Gee, that sounds a lot like a union!  Another thing that is traditionally rejected by conservative Republican platforms.  

So here we are, “enlightened” (yes, those are scare-quotes) academics of the big cities, being told by bloated university administrations that we don’t “need” a union; that we can deal directly with the administration; that they cannot afford to pay us living wages; that they need to employ so many adjuncts to teach core courses in order to maintain “flexibility”; that this is just the way things are and we shouldn’t have gone into teaching if we wanted to earn a living wage.  And the worst of it is that their rhetoricians keep telling us that we don’t need “some third party” coming in and telling us what to do—as if the union were a third party.  Is the farmers’ cooperative a “third party”?  No.  It is the collaboration of a group of farmers, joining forces to ensure proper treatment in the face of bigger, profit-driven corporations—entities that Andrew Jackson repeatedly warned us about at the inception of the phenomenon; entities that are only as compassionate as the robber barons running them.  And it is the lifeline of many smaller farmers.  So, is a teacher’s union a third party?  No more than a farmers’ cooperative is.  

Maybe these big, urban universities could learn a lesson from their small town cousins.  Maybe these rural farming communities can teach us something after all about the dignity of human beings and about community and justice.  Thank you, Dr. Eckman, for teaching me about the dignity and the example of small town life.  Maybe if they paid us a living wage, and treated us with the dignity with which these small town colleges are treating their faculty, our urban schools would not currently be living in fear of having a union.