Saturday, March 31, 2018

Idealism Tempered by Reality: Robert Kennedy in the Shadow of JFK

Few will have the greatness to bend history itself; but each of us can work to change a small portion of events, and in the total of all those acts will be written the history of this generation. – Robert F. Kennedy, South Africa, 1966
Coming of age in the 1970s, I was fascinated by the Kennedy brothers, the glamour, the mystique, the all-American mythology. From my reading of history, I admired the cool dispassion of John and the passionate moralism of Robert. Later, I would come to admire the legislative skills of Ted. Despite their many and varied flaws, over the years the Kennedy brothers have remained a source of inspiration to me, more for what they represented than for what they accomplished. Their public personas embodied the promise of America and the ideal of public service. In our collective imagination, the Kennedys appealed to the better angels of our character and articulated a poetic and aspirational vision of America.

Admittedly, my youthful fascination with the Kennedys has been tempered by life and maturity, by the recognition that the wealth and status associated with the Kennedys are matters of fortune and luck; the life of a Kennedy bears little resemblance to reality for most of us. Camelot was a myth of our own imagining. The reality of their lives was messier and more complicated than their public relations machinery presented. But their impact on the concept of public service left an indelible and inspiring mark on the fabric of American history.

As President, John Kennedy understood that the problems and challenges America faced in his time were of pre-existent origins. Governing did not allow for mythological and utopian thinking. JFK made public service something to be admired and respected. He established the Peace Corps and sent young men and women to far off lands on missions of goodwill. He encouraged America to reach the moon and explore the universe. He advocated public support for the arts. He presided over the Cuban missile crisis with exceptional tact and competence. He understood the perils of nuclear ambition, the horrific consequences of nuclear war, and the environmental devastation of atmospheric testing. Although his presidency was cut short before he could achieve his most ambitious objectives, he pointed us in the right direction.

But to study the Kennedys is to encounter disappointment and regret for the lost potential of what might have been. Although JFK’s presidency lasted only 1,000 days, by November 1963, he had developed into a true national leader. Months earlier he had acknowledged the moral imperative of civil rights and the injustices of the Jim Crow South. It took Lyndon Johnson to harness the Kennedy myth and America’s love affair with Camelot to succeed where Kennedy failed – in civil rights and an assortment of federal programs that aided the poor and middle class in substantial and lasting ways. But history treats our fallen heroes more kindly than others. JFK’s mythic legacy has outlasted Johnson’s hard-scrabbled achievements. And it is a legacy owed in part to younger brother Bobby, who played a unique role in American history as Attorney General and the President’s protector, confidante, and advisor.

Few people in public life have demonstrated a larger capacity for personal growth and reflection than Robert “Bobby” Kennedy did in his final decade of life. In his earlier years, Bobby fought the Cold War and opposed Communism while otherwise advancing the political interests of his brother. When he became Attorney General, Bobby studied first-hand the injustices of segregation and racism. He reprioritized the Justice Department’s resources to fight the mafia and its corrupting influence on American institutions, including labor unions. He immeasurably helped guide JFK through the Cuban missile crisis. His reputation for being tough and ruthless evolved into one of a respected and thoughtful public figure.

By the middle of the 1960s, Bobby’s concerns were focused on a broader set of issues. By then, he had become the one Kennedy whose passions, ideals, and intellect were best suited to lead the United States through a time of division and strife. Like his brother, he did not live long enough to fulfill his dreams of racial reconciliation, economic justice, and peace, but his personal, moral, and intellectual growth during his last several years of life was truly impressive.

Bobby understood far better than John what it was like to experience neglect, to be overlooked and forgotten. He was in many ways the runt of the litter, the smallest and scrappiest of the Kennedy brothers, the least golden of these all-American golden boys. Not to overplay this – he was still a rich, privileged Kennedy, with all of the advantages that accompany wealth and fame. But later in life, when he personally witnessed the extreme poverty, as described by Michael Harrington in The Other America, of Appalachia and the Mississippi Delta; rubbed the cheeks of malnourished black children and saw entire families living in shacks with no running water or sewage – he was sharply awakened to the reality that, even in America, the richest, most powerful nation on Earth, injustice and inequality were widespread.

A devout Catholic of Jesuit influence, with a strong social justice instinct, Robert Kennedy was a problem solver who cared little for political ideology. By the time he became a U.S. Senator from New York, he was interested only in solutions that worked, that made people’s lives better. When his eyes were opened to the sufferings of impoverished and underprivileged Americans, Bobby could not fathom that these injustices existed so epidemically in the United States. He came to believe the Cold War would be won more effectively in how we confronted inequity and injustice than by how many nuclear warheads we possessed.

Among the great divides in America today is that between the cynics and the idealists. There remain few of the latter. Perhaps only Barack Obama, who wished to unite Americans of every race and ideology, has come closest to resurrecting the idealism of RFK. Obama’s vision of a people united in the common good was blocked by Mitch McConnell and his Republican strategists. And we will never know if RFK could have successfully bridged the wide gaps that existed in the late 1960s between black and white, rich and poor, urban and rural.

By the last few years of his life, Robert Kennedy had become a prophetic and unifying voice at a time when our nation was divided over Vietnam, civil rights, and the sexual revolution. He responded with sensitivity, intelligence, and compassion in ways that distinguished him as a uniquely thoughtful leader. He gave voice to reason at a time when many Americans had lost faith in our institutions.

He was liberal without being elitist, and he did not shy away from telling people things they did not always want to hear. He opposed the Vietnam War, but told affluent white college students that they should not be allowed educational deferments from the draft and leave the fighting overseas to poor whites and racial minorities. He was a champion of civil rights but strongly supported the rule of law and the prosecution of rioters and looters. He was a champion of the poor but did not like many traditional welfare programs, believing they were degrading and humiliating to the recipients. He called instead for “a massive effort, public and private, to provide jobs and housing and hope to the people who dwell in the Other America.”

For 82 days in 1968, a time of massive unrest, it appeared that Robert Kennedy was the only American politician who could successfully bring America together. Although he took too long to enter the race, once he announced his candidacy, he presented America with a clear case for why he was running: to end the war in Vietnam; to bring people of different races and ethnicities together; and to fight poverty and economic injustice. An awkward, inconsistent speaker in his younger days, he found a self-confidence and eloquence that had previously eluded him.

We cannot undo history, but must contend with the reality of today. In looking back over the past 50 years, it is hard not to long for a man or woman as passionate and idealistic as the Robert Kennedy of the mid- to late-1960s. As the historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. wrote of Kennedy, “History changed him, and, had time permitted, he might have changed history.”

At a time when few politicians could do so, Bobby Kennedy forged a coalition of working-class whites and blacks, and helped them recognize that they shared common interests. It is why the memory of his life and sudden death haunts us still.

As Thurston Clarke wrote in The Last Campaign: Robert F. Kennedy and 82 Days that Inspired America (Holt, 2008), people from all walks of life mourned Kennedy’s death “because they sensed that he had tried to educate rather than manipulate them, reconcile rather than divide them, engage them in a dialogue rather than feed them the message of the day, appeal to their better angels instead of their wallets, and demand sacrifice instead of promising comfort. They mourned him because they ached for a leader who could heal their wounded nation and restore its tarnished honor, and because they ached to feel noble again.” America today needs another Bobby Kennedy, his idealism and unifying spirit. We need someone who will help us feel noble again.

The youthfulness I speak of is not a time of life, but a state of mind, a temper of the will, a quality of the imagination, a predominance of courage over timidity, of the appetite for adventure over the love of ease. It is the spirit which knows the difference between force and reason. It does not accept the failures of tomorrow. It knows that we can clasp the future, and mold it to our will. . . . Leadership which is true to the spirit will recognize the source of our happiness; it will know that we will find fulfillment not in the goods we have, but in the good we can do together. – Robert F. Kennedy, Los Angeles, 1968

Tuesday, February 6, 2018

Pride and Prejudice: Remembering the Humanity of Roberto Clemente

Legend has it that, during the 1969 season, when the Pittsburgh Pirates were visiting San Diego, Roberto Clemente walked from his hotel to a local carry-out chicken place. On his way back, a bag of food in hand, he was kidnapped by a gang of four young Mexican nationals, shoved into a car and taken to an abandoned park. As one man held a knife to Clemente, the gang members took his wallet, chicken dinner, and some of his clothing. About to leave Clemente stranded in the park, one of the gang members finally realized that they had kidnapped the great Clemente (one of the items they stole from him was an All-Star ring with his name on it). Horrified, they immediately returned to Clemente his wallet and clothes, apologized profusely, and drove him back to the hotel. Before driving away, a gang member jumped out of the car and handed to Clemente his chicken dinner. Such was the respect and admiration for the Latin Prophet.

I was thirteen years old when Roberto Clemente died on New Year’s Eve in 1972, after his chartered plane crashed while on a humanitarian mission to deliver food and clothing to thousands of earthquake victims in Nicaragua. I still remember the shocking news reports that Clemente’s plane had gone missing over the waters of the Atlantic Ocean shortly after taking off from Puerto Rico. For a young teenage boy who idolized the star baseball players whose pictures appeared on bubblegum cards and in the pages of The Sporting News, it was an early lesson in the mortality of our heroes and the human vulnerability of us all.

To me, Clemente was a perennial All-Star, one of the elite and most respected players in all of baseball. That he died trying to better humanity and bring aid and comfort to people who had lost their homes in a natural disaster, and who were being denied food and medicine by the corrupt regime of Nicaraguan military leader Anastasio Somoza, only enhanced Clemente’s status as a larger-than-life character.

At thirteen, I was familiar with Clemente from a distance, as the star right fielder of the Pittsburgh Pirates and competitive adversary to my Strat-O-Matic version of the St. Louis Cardinals. I appreciated Clemente’s stylish athleticism and grace whenever the Pirates were featured on NBC’s game of the week or during the annual All-Star game and, most memorably, the 1971 World Series when the Pirates surprised the Baltimore Orioles and Clemente displayed his artistry to a national audience (Roger Angell described Clemente’s performance in that series as “something close to the level of absolute perfection”). I recall having seen Clemente play in person only once, against the Phillies in either 1971 or 1972, but on this point my memory lacks clarity, and that is a shame. Because he remains one of the most skilled and graceful athletes to have ever played the game in my lifetime.

Recently, I finished reading about his life and times in David Maraniss’s biography, Clemente: The Passion and Grace of Baseball’s Last Hero (Simon & Shuster 2006). Maraniss portrayed Clemente in all his human complexity; as a proud and dignified man, one of baseball’s early Latino stars, who experienced racism and discrimination and the loneliness of being a Spanish-speaking player on an all-American ball club, where even the other black players did not easily relate to him. Despite his dark skin, Clemente identified as a Latino man, and a representative of his native Puerto Rico, not as a black man. But while this caused some early misunderstanding in the black community and African American press, it was due more to the language barrier than actual differences.

Clemente was a sensitive soul and did not easily remain silent in the face of injustice. He felt passionately about civil rights and did not understand why he and other black and Latino players were forced to stay in the “colored” side of town during Spring Training in the 1950s and early 1960s when the Pirates were stationed in Ft. Myers, Florida, then part of the Jim Crow south. Clemente greatly admired the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., who once spoke at length with Clemente on a visit to Puerto Rico. He shared King’s vision of a day when all people – rich or poor, black or white – would be treated with dignity and respect, as human beings, equal in the eyes of God and the law.

Clemente was equally disturbed by what he considered the unfair stereotyping of Latino players, as lazy or soft. Clemente frequently played hurt – he had chronic back and neck pain due to wayward discs from a car accident in 1954 (which occurred when he was driving home to see his dying brother); bone chips in his elbow caused inflammation when he threw too much or too hard (he had the strongest arm in the major leagues, which made him a perennial Gold Glove winner in the outfield); and he had stomach ailments and frequent tension headaches. Some critics, including some baseball writers, called him a hypochondriac and believed him to be a malingerer, a misperception that deeply hurt Clemente. As his former manager Harry Walker once said, “No man ever gave more of himself or worked more unselfishly for the good of the team than Roberto.”

Clemente ran out every ground ball and always hustled on the bases. In right field, he thought he could catch any fly ball hit in his vicinity and throw out any runner who tried to take an extra base. Despite the long, exhausting  baseball season, he continued to play winter ball in Puerto Rico until late in his career. And through it all he led the National League in hitting four times, accumulated 3,000 career hits and a lifetime .317 batting average, was the outfield assist leader five times, won twelve Gold Glove awards, and played in eleven All-Star games. Clearly there was nothing lazy or soft about Clemente.

Clemente’s occasional  outspokenness led to misunderstandings, in part because he spoke broken English and lacked nuance in his speech (which would not have been the case had reporters communicated with him in his native Spanish). Many reporters back then quoted him phonetically, which made him seem unintelligent and drove him crazy (e.g., “I hit many what you call the ‘bad bol’ pitches and get good wood. The ‘bol’ travel like bullet”). It hurt his dignity. Because Clemente felt he represented the people, history, and struggle of his fellow Puerto Ricans, any perceived slights to him were insults to his people.

Despite his sometimes superhuman skills on the ball field, Clemente was a human being with human feelings and flaws. He once punched an autograph-seeking fan in Philadelphia who became too intrusive (Clemente later apologized), and he argued with umpires whom he felt did not treat him fairly. But he had a soft, gentle side as well, which led him to “adopt” a shy teenage girl from Pennsylvania as his American “sister” and to treat her and her mother as extended family for many years thereafter, inviting them to games and dinner when he was in town and to stay with he and wife Vera on visits to Puerto Rico during the offseason.

Clemente had a particular soft spot for children, especially if they were sick or poor. He quietly and routinely visited hospitalized children while on the road in National League cities. Although he did not seek publicity, word quickly spread and requests came in from all over; Clemente would sort his mail before each road trip and bring with him letters from children in the cities in which the Pirates were scheduled to play.

He dreamed that after his baseball career ended he would establish a free “sports city” for the children of Puerto Rico, where kids from all walks of life could learn to play together and become good citizens. He talked of inviting Willie Mays, Mickey Mantle, and Ted Williams to come and teach the kids fundamental baseball skills. He wanted to start an exchange program so that kids from Puerto Rico could spend time in the United States, and kids from the States could spend time in Puerto Rico. Only by playing together, eating together, and living together, he believed, can people understand that we share the same dreams in life. “If you have a chance to accomplish something that will make things better for people coming behind you,” Clemente said, “and you don’t do that, you are wasting your time on this earth.” 

“The reality of many athletes, even those who become hailed as deities, is that they diminish with time,” wrote Maraniss. “Clemente was the opposite, becoming more sure of himself and his larger role in life.” After he won the MVP award in 1966 and finally received the official recognition and respect he felt had been previously overlooked, he began to relax and feel accepted. And as the Pirates (like many of the teams in the 1960s and 1970s) added growing numbers of black and Latino players to their roster, Clemente’s true, fun-loving personality began to shine in the clubhouse. He became more comfortable in his surroundings, enjoyed the fun-loving ribbing from his teammates, and dished back his own gentle jibes. His teammates adored him.

Clemente was revered throughout Latin America as an almost mythical figure. He mentored the many young Latino ballplayers who followed him to the major leagues, including Orlando Cepeda, one of my all-time favorite players. Clemente was like a big brother to Cepeda, generously giving of his time, advice, and encouragement even though they never played on the same team.  That Clemente died on a mission in service of humanity caused him to be regarded by many people of Spanish-speaking countries as something close to a prophet. Had Clemente played in New York, Boston, or Los Angeles, he would have been a national icon. But playing in small-market Pittsburgh, he was among the best kept secrets in baseball.

“The mythic aspects of baseball,” wrote Maraniss, “usually draw on clich├ęs of the innocent past, the nostalgia for how things were. Fields of green. Fathers and sons. But Clemente’s myth arcs the other way, to the future, not the past, to what people hope they can become.” Roberto Clemente was a great ballplayer with exceptional talent. He was also a fundamentally decent human being who understood how fortunate he was in life while recognizing the misfortunes of others. He knew that his gifts placed on him special demands and obligations. He achieved near perfection as a ballplayer, but sought to better himself as a human being. 

Having learned more about his life and inner passions, I wish I had known more about Clemente when he was alive. Although I will always admire his extraordinary talents as a baseball player, in the end, I am even more inspired by his humanity and will remember him for the complex, dynamic, and passionate human being he was. 

Tuesday, January 23, 2018

The Steady Decline of American Democracy

I have refrained this past year from writing about the state of our political affairs, preferring instead to keep an open mind and to wait-and-see if things were really as bad as I had feared. They’re worse. The election of Donald Trump as the 45th President of the United States has caused daily anxiety and stress, not only for me and other liberal minded, politically-interested citizens, but for the majority of Americans and the world at large. Trump as President has changed everything – he has cheapened our public discourse, undermined the rule of law, degraded our civic values, and methodically lowered our standards. One need not read Michael Wolff’s new book Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House to understand that Trump lacks the skills needed to effectively govern. His actions and words have steadily frayed the societal bonds that hold us together. For the first time in my life, I awaken each morning with a sense of dread.

We live in dangerous times, with a mentally unstable, unpredictable leader of the free world; an uninformed, ignorant, angry and insecure man in the White House. Trump has weakened American democracy, because he does not respect the political and legal institutions on which our democracy depends and which have provided stability and security since the end of World War II. Our alliances have been shattered, trust in U.S. leadership is at an all-time low, and the country is deeply divided in ways that seem more serious and permanent than ever before.

I freely acknowledge this is not the first time we have experienced deep divisions – in my lifetime, the United States was torn apart by the struggle for civil rights, the Vietnam War, Watergate, abortion, the rights of gays and lesbians. But it seems different now. Where we used to disagree about the means to an end, we no longer agree on the ends. We no longer accept the same facts. The president throws out incendiary, fabricated terms like “fake news” and “deep state” and promotes paranoid conspiracy theories on such a routine basis that we risk losing our grip on bedrock reality.

It has only been one year since Trump’s inaugural address, when he spoke of “American carnage” and gave the darkest, most sinister and depressing presidential speech in American history. Over the course of the past year, Trump has insulted foreign leaders on Twitter, called for the arrest and prosecution of his political opponents, openly undermined members of his own Cabinet, mocked and denigrated the FBI and CIA, insulted the leaders of friendly nations, and sang the praises of some of the world’s worst dictators.

As president, Trump has diminished our 70 year-long alliance with Western Europe and placed in doubt our commitments under NATO. His calls for “America first” harken back to the isolationist and anti-Semitic America First Committee founded by Charles Lindbergh in 1940. His pre-presidential campaign behavior, when he bragged about the size of his penis, made fun of his opponents’ wives, and mocked a disabled reporter, has carried over to his similarly puerile conduct in office. No other president in modern times has treated his political adversaries in such a disgusting, dishonorable fashion. Being president has done nothing to sensitize Trump to the majestic arc of American history, the immense responsibilities of his office, and the reality that he presides over a diverse nation of 325 million people.

Trump has perhaps irreparably damaged the reputation and credibility of the United States with the rest of the world. He has threatened the use of nuclear weapons in ways so irresponsible and immature, it has made a mockery of America’s traditional role as the world’s foremost superpower. With no moral compass, no sense of decency or decorum, he has abandoned America’s commitment to human rights and the maintenance of world order as seminal principles of U.S. foreign policy. He has withdrawn the United States from the Paris Climate Accords and the Trans-Pacific Partnership, threatened repeatedly to withdraw from the Iran Nuclear Deal, and left a vacuum in world leadership that is already being filled by Germany, China, and Russia.

At home, he has done nothing to expand his appeal beyond the approximately one-third of Americans who continue to support him no matter what he does or says. He fundamentally misunderstands his constitutional responsibilities, the separation of powers, and his ethical duties, and instead acts like a morally bankrupt figurehead who has no qualms about exploiting his position for financial gain. He enjoys sparking the flames of racism and white identity politics with attacks on political correctness and civility. Having entered the political arena by promoting the blatantly racist and false claim that Barack Obama was not born in America, hardly a week goes by when Trump does not insult Mexicans, immigrants, Muslims, black athletes, or some other identifiable segment of humanity, including most recently the people of Haiti and the entire continent of Africa.

Among the most dangerous aspects of the Trump presidency are his attacks on truth, science, facts, and a free press. As Republican Senator Jeff Flake of Arizona articulated on the Senate floor on January 17th, “2017 was a year which saw the truth – objective, empirical, evidence-based truth – more battered and abused than any other in the history of the country…It was a year which saw the White House enshrine ‘alternative facts’ into the American lexicon, as justification for what used to be known simply as good old-fashioned falsehoods.” This president lies so frequently – as of a few days ago, The Washington Post had documented 2,140 falsehoods told by Trump since being sworn in as President – that his public pronouncements, and that of his press spokesperson Sarah Huckabee Sanders, are the source of daily outrage and embarrassment.

His phony cries of “fake news” and his disrespect for an independent press are direct attacks on the First Amendment. In calling the press not simply unfair but the “enemy of the American people,” he has attempted to delegitimize the one institution of our democracy that has any chance of holding Trump accountable. His personal insults directed at individual reporters whose stories he dislikes are among the most ugly and obscene aspects of this presidency, for attacking a free press is a tool historically used by despots and dictators. The effects are poisonous to American democracy.

As the year unfolded, we have learned just how actively Russia interfered with the 2016 U.S. presidential election, with increasing evidence that Trump’s closest confidantes exploited and encouraged their Russian connections to create disinformation and corrupt the electoral process. I will wait for all of the facts to develop through the Mueller investigation before commenting further, but it is astonishing to me the lengths to which Trump’s supporters defend and excuse every aspect of this story.

Trump and the Republicans have done nothing to retaliate against the Russians for attacking our sovereignty, discrediting the U.S. political system, and distorting our democratic process. Instead, the president has repeatedly called the Russia story a “hoax” and ridiculed the Justice Department, the FBI, and his own intelligence agencies for telling him what he wants not to hear. As Senator Flake also warned in his remarks last week, “an American president who cannot take criticism – who must constantly deflect and distort and distract – who must find someone else to blame – is charting a very dangerous path. And a Congress that fails to act as a check on the president adds to the danger.”

It may well be for future historians to determine the full degree to which the Trump presidency has distorted the truth and damaged the institutions of American democracy. But it is self-evident that serious damage is being done. Trump has succeeded in lowering our standards and creating a new "normal." He has elevated pettiness and indecency to new heights, reduced presidential discourse to ignorant and childish Twitter feeds, personal attacks and insults. He does not read. He is ill informed on almost every policy issue. He has demonstrated not a scintilla of interest in personal growth since becoming president. If he had remained the mediocre, publicity-hungry real estate developer he once was, none of this would matter. But when such behavior and pettiness emanates from the leader of the free world, it is destructive of our politics and degrades our moral authority. Leadership requires judgment. Humility. Character. A true leader does not encourage the ugly and debased passions of white supremacists and appeal to our darkest impulses.

During his inaugural address in 1861, at a time when the nation was even more divided than we are today, newly elected President Abraham Lincoln spoke the words of a true leader:
We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory will swell when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.
If only Trump would study the speeches and actions of some of our past presidents – Washington, Lincoln, Roosevelt, and Reagan – men he claims to respect, who presided over the United States during tumultuous times in our history. They knew the importance of using the privilege of their office to heal divisions, to reach out to those who opposed them, and to seek common ground. No president is perfect. But Trump doesn’t even try.

In 1789, at the beginning of the American journey, George Washington observed that a president should not in any way “demean himself in his public character” and must act “in such a manner as to maintain the dignity of office.” It is a gross understatement to suggest that Trump has failed this test. He demeans himself and the office on a daily basis, and we as a nation are becoming inured to it. He has done immense damage to the rule of law, our constitutional system, our social fabric, and our sense of national unity. Although I would like to believe otherwise, I fear that, like the melting glaciers in the arctic, there will be a breaking point from which we cannot recover.

Saturday, January 6, 2018

On Love, Laughter, and Good Conversations

The greatness of a man is not in how much wealth he acquires, but in his integrity and his ability to affect those around him positively. – Bob Marley
During a recent lunchtime walk, as I admired the sun’s reflection on the surface of Philadelphia’s Schuylkill River a few blocks from my office, I reached for my phone to call my brother. For the past several years, I had called Steve every week or two. We would talk about how things were going in our respective lives, upcoming travel plans, and anything else that came to mind. But then I suddenly remembered that Steve was no longer with us, his number in my phone but a remnant of a past life. I placed the phone back into my pocket, looked at the still waters beside me and the blue skies above, and walked silently onward.

This has happened to me a few times since Steve died in early October. I am not sure why I experience these temporary lapses in memory. Others have told me it is a common experience and to be expected for anyone who has lost someone close to them. But it is at moments such as these when I am forced to contemplate the reality of loss, the certainty of death, and the fragility of life itself.

Another year has come and gone. Days pass ever so quickly as the steady drumbeat of life leaves me stranded on the abandoned tracks of time’s unrelenting forward progress. During a two-week stretch in early autumn, I forever lost the presence of two men I admired and respected – Andrea’s dad, my father-in-law, Marty Gelman, and my dear brother Steve. Through their deaths, Marty to natural causes at the age of 96 and Steve to brain cancer at 61, I am more intimately familiar with the temporary nature of life, compelled to appreciate more profoundly the importance of awakening to the wonder of each new day. For now and forever, it is the memories I will cherish, the shared experiences and momentary insights, the simple pleasures of a good meal and a good laugh.

I remember especially the little things, the quiet conversations with Marty on Sunday afternoons, the golf outings, ballgames, and childhood memories with Steve. “That’s when I realized that certain moments go on forever,” writes Lauren Oliver in the novel Before I Fall. “Even after they’re over they still go on, even after you're dead and buried, those moments are lasting still, backward and forward, on into infinity. They are everything and everywhere all at once.”

Marty and me, Thanksgiving 2016
Martin Gelman was a one-of-a-kind man who lived a full and meaningful life on his terms. (You can read of his many accomplishments and rich history here and here.) But what I will miss most are the many conversations I had with Marty about religion and politics, life and the world around us. Marty had a knack for listening and putting things into perspective – he provided a sense of historical insight, reminding us of the many ways life repeats itself. He had lived through the Great Depression, fought in World War II, and for fifty years taught anthropology and psychology at a local community college, where he became one of its most popular professors. For 35 of those years, he counseled patients from all walks of life in his center-city Philadelphia clinical psychology practice, earning the love and respect of countless admirers. He earned the Distinguished Flying Cross as a B-24 navigator during the Good War and was a member of the Greatest Generation. And yet, through it all he retained a sense of humility and unpretentiousness that made you immediately comfortable and at ease in his presence.

I was especially inspired by Marty’s life-long love of learning, for he believed that, as members of the human race, we are on this planet to learn, think, question, and search. He was often the first person to read a new essay I had composed. I looked forward to talking with him about what I had written, eliciting his opinion and, hopefully, affirmation. Our talks typically led to a much longer conversation about related topics concerning philosophy, politics, family life, my love of the St. Louis Cardinals (which he admired and found amusing, even as it perplexed him), and other things about which we sometimes agreed and sometimes did not.

I debated often with Marty about the nature and existence of God, with my defense of God’s existence sharply challenged by Marty’s inherent skepticism. Having survived fifty bombing missions over the skies of Europe in World War II, having learned of the horrors of the Holocaust, having witnessed the repeated failures of human morality and humanity’s misuse of technology for the sake of greed and power, he had many rational and logical reasons to question God’s existence. But in all of our talks, while he asked good questions, he never insisted he was right, and he retained a hopeful sense of possibility, which allowed us always to find common ground.

He was intrigued by my embrace of the teachings of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, who believed that God’s presence, though concealed, was everywhere, and that it was up to human beings to make God’s presence known by experiencing the everyday wonder of the universe. “Our goal should be to live life in radical amazement,” wrote Heschel. “[T]o get up in the morning and look at the world in a way that takes nothing for granted. Everything is phenomenal; everything is incredible; never treat life casually. To be spiritual is to be amazed.” I believe this resonated with Marty because, despite his secular rationalism and deep skepticism born of the evils of 20th Century atrocities, deep down he shared Heschel’s sense of wonder and amazement. And I loved that about him.

I will miss Marty and our talks, his wise counsel, and the love and compassion he had for all who entered his life. Even at the end of his life, when he had lost his physical agility and needed help with the daily things of life, with eating and sitting and getting dressed, he never lost his sense of humor, his compassion and concern for others, and his genuine interest in the wellbeing of us all. He was a living example of Heschel’s admonition, “Just to be is a blessing. Just to live is holy.”

Steve and me at One World Trade Center
Fall 2016
My conversations with Steve were less intellectual, but he was my big brother, a source of encouragement and support I have always counted on. Steve and I shared a bond that went back a half century, to our childhood, when we found new and creative ways to have fun, played sports together, and shared life’s many adventures in a suburban New Jersey, Huck Finn sort of way. Steve was an incredibly fun-loving soul who never took life too seriously. When we were growing up in Moorestown, and later Hightstown, New Jersey, we did everything together. Although Steve was three years ahead of me in school, he let me hang out with his older friends and never excluded me from any activity. We played touch football in the backyard of our house with neighborhood friends, competed against each other in one-on-one basketball games, hit ground balls to each other in our backyard, pitched batting practice to each other at the local ball fields, and found all sorts of ways to have fun in the days before video games and technology kept all the kids indoors.

Although he possessed a perpetually childlike spirit, Steve was slightly defeated in later years, a touch beaten down by an adult life filled with heartache. When his first marriage ended in divorce, along with his career as an ordained Lutheran minister (a long story, to which I will say only that the then Bishop of the Southeastern Lutheran Synod was a rigid, unforgiving, and uncompassionate man who represented exactly the opposite of what the Church should be), he never fully recovered. He made his share of mistakes, but his negative experience with the church diminished his youthful zest for life. For years afterwards, though he retained his friendly nature and bright smile, a portion of his happy-go-lucky style disappeared and he developed emotional defenses that left him a touch guarded.  

And yet, Steve was among the most resilient and resourceful people I have ever known. He always found a way to make things work. Whatever sadness he harbored in later years, he continued on with dignity and fortitude. He found love and happiness again, restored his relationship with his two children, whom he dearly loved, and performed well in his new careers in banking and business.

Before he became too sick to speak at any length, when he still had his health and a sense of normalcy, Steve and I spoke nearly every week by phone. Some days we would talk about the pressures of work, the daily struggles to succeed and make a living. On other days we talked about politics, our kids, our shared passion for baseball and our past dreams of baseball glory. By the time we had reached mid-life, our childhood experiences were but faded memories of days long past. But even as time and distance came between us, we always remained friends and knew we would always be there for each other. Steve was one of the few people in life with whom I shared deep-seated memories and formative childhood experiences. And though we never made it to the major leagues, we understood our baseball dreams for what they were – the longings of young men learning as we go, providing support and encouragement along the way.

So, as a new year beckons and life journeys onward, here is to the memories of two kind and decent people who found a way to enrich the world with their presence, their dignity, and their generosity of spirit. Though they were distinctly different individuals, Marty and Steve each in their own way left the world a little better than they found it. I will miss them both, but I will forever cherish the many memories, of love, laughter, and good conversation. 

Sunday, September 3, 2017

HOT OFF THE PRESSES - BOOK ANNOUNCEMENT: The Journey Continues: Collected Essays on Life, Baseball, People, and Ideas 2014 - 2016

The Journey Continues: Collected Essays on Life, Baseball, People, and Ideas 
2014 - 2016:

"If we could place time in a bottle, we would have less need for memories and less regret for wasted days.” So contends Mark J. Ehlers in The Journey Continues, a new collection of essays on life, baseball, people and ideas from the author that brought us Eat Bananas and Follow Your Heart and Life Goes On. In The Journey Continues, Ehlers writes about ideas and people who inspire and intrigue him, reflects on the mystery of life, and struggles out-loud with the human quest for understanding. He writes about family, of love, loss, and missed conversations. And he writes about baseball as a game that “embodies the American spirit, the promise of childhood, and dreams of young boys in old men’s bodies."

"I hope someday my daughters recall fondly the times they spent in a car with their Dad, the baseball games we attended, our conversations and shared adventures. For it is the memories that sustain us and help make sense of the past; that allow us to live with passion and purpose in the present.” - "Sunday Mornings and Hot Dog Stands"

"History, like memory, is elusive; what we choose to remember and document but a collage of selective images and stories. What seems important one day is lost on another, set aside in a vacant warehouse filled with old history books and dusty memoirs. As the years progress, we remember less and immortalize but a small sampling of men and women who over their lifetimes influenced the course of human events." - "Angelic Troublemaker: The Quiet Legacy of Bayard Rustin"

"When the end of our lives draw near, it will be the friendships we have made, the kindnesses we have bestowed, the lessons we have taught and learned from each other that will remain behind; tiny footprints of memory in the lives we have touched along the way." - "Done Too Soon"

"The world will forever remain a complex place, full of disappointment and despair. Religious extremism and religious conflict are part of the problem, but so is religious illiteracy -- the failure to understand the 'other' and the many dimensions and faces of religious belief and practice in the world today. Perhaps if we recognize how fortuitous are the origins of our own  religious identities, we will make more meaningful connections to people of other faiths, or of no faith, and the many who remain conflicted about faith. Then, too, we may see more clearly that which we have in common -- the desire for community and fellowship, the need for foundational principles, and the search for God in a broken world." - "The Interfaith Imperative of the 21st Century"

"Only through art can we achieve perfection. Through poetry and literature, a beautiful painting, a thoughtful sonnet, or perhaps a prayer for peace, we can put forth a thought, a story, an image, or a philosophical query that achieves precisely what the artist or author intended. When I write, I edit and re-write, changing words and sentences, restructuring paragraphs, until I am satisfied that the combination of written words has the desired effect. But life, as we know, is not a work of art; perfection eludes us all." - "Finding Strength in What Remains Behind"

"I understand that moral reflection is often a non-existent luxury in the heat of war. But it is imperative that, as citizens and human beings with a moral conscience, we continue to ask questions of and debate our past actions. For we have, in the words of Robert Kennedy 'unlocked the mystery of nature . . . [and] must live with the power of complete self-destruction. This is the power of choice, the tragedy and glory of man.' The real dangers come from us, from the egos, passions, prejudices and jealousies of humanity itself. It is these forces we must together overcome or, in the end, we will defeat ourselves." - "Reflections on the Darker Impulses of Humanity"

"Walking the grounds of Monticello, I thought of the many complexities, the shades of gray that so often permeate the human condition. Is anyone really ever the embodiment of pure goodness, or pure evil? So often, we place people and nations in black-and-white boxes, for it is easier to justify our actions when we do so. It is how nations build support for warfare and organized violence. It allows us to place on pedestals our own designated heroes. But rarely are the people who occupy the nations with whom we disagree full of pure evil, or the people who inspire us made of pure goodness. Criminals and prostitutes, businessmen and thieves, generals and inspiring leaders – all are at one time infants and children; all at some point in life long for the loving embrace of a mother or the prideful moments of a child’s accomplishments; and all are imperfect." - "Monticello and the Jefferson Paradox"

"No sport lends itself to the art of writing and the literary craft more than baseball. It is a game embedded in the ever changing landscape of America, from the crowded streets of 1950’s New York and Prohibition Chicago to the westernmost expanse of coastal California. Through the distractions of war and struggles for the rights of man, baseball’s appeal remains constant. It is a game that draws us to the memories of youth, of dirt stains and the scent of freshly cut grass on a spring day, of perfectly shaped infields and the lonely arc of a fly ball on a windy, sun-drenched afternoon. As I grow older and my athletic skills recede ever further into the distant past, I feel a small pain in my heart as I watch the ease and effortless joy with which today’s major leaguers perform the daily routines of batting practice and fielding drills. It is a young man’s game. I long for the rare moments of eternal grace, when the game allows me to stay forever young and live the romanticized dreams of childhood." - "On Baseball and Writing: Roger Angell and the Summer Game"

"For six consecutive seasons, I watched with a touch of envy as the Ripken brothers stood a few feet apart near the second base bag and fielded ground balls casually tossed from the first basemen between innings, or chatted with each other during pitching changes as the relief pitcher warmed up. I remember thinking how fortunate they were to be playing a game they loved and had played together as children. When most men had long since abandoned their dreams, here they were as brothers, playing alongside each other in a major league park, turning double plays for the same team, and sharing the experience of a lifetime together. It is the stuff of which dreams are made." – “On Brothers and Baseball”

"When I attend games in person, whether at the grand cathedrals of major league baseball or at the local high school fields and parks near my home, I love to watch the action between innings, when the pitcher takes his warm-up throws, the first baseman lofts ground balls to the infielders, and the outfielders play a relaxed game of catch from 200 feet apart. The graceful rhythms of the ballplayers create a symphony of movement, baseballs flowing in multiple directions, all with a sense of linear purpose. At these moments, the game encompasses my imagination, allows me to remember the feelings and love I had for the game as a player, and reminds me of the dreams I held onto until reality and life set me straight." – “Why Time Begins on Opening Day” 

(c) 2017 by Mark J. Ehlers
Bookstand Publishing



Life Goes On: 
More Essays on Life, Baseball, and Things that Matter

Part memoir and part reflection, in Life Goes On, Ehlers addresses life in all its dimensions; the passage of time and of unmet dreams, the conflicts of faith in a secular age, the redeeming quality of the human spirit, and a lifelong bond with baseball. It is for anyone who believes that life is too precious to cease thinking and learning, and recognizes that, in the words of Abraham Joshua Heschel, "There is no human being who does not carry a treasure in his soul: a moment of insight, a memory of love, a dream of excellence..." 

"Some people believe in destiny and fate, others in free will. For most us, life is but a roll of the dice, a complex mixture of chance and circumstance that affects the course of our lives. We do not choose the country of our birth and have no say in the immediate circumstances of our upbringing. We do not choose our ethnicity, our race, or the major events of history that coincide with our own personal histories. Some people are born rich and privileged, while others are born poor and unloved. But all of us must learn to live with the cards we are dealt and, ultimately, choose how we live." - "Marty and Gertrude: An American Story"

"Conventional wisdom teaches that one should never discuss religion and politics in polite company. I have never quite understood this, as I believe human interaction is at its best when people are not afraid to reveal themselves, when we are open to civil discourse and healthy give-and-take on matters of substance. Besides, the weather has never been all that interesting to me. But perhaps this is why I am not invited to many dinner parties." - "On Faith, Politics, and the Christian Divide"

"Being a fan requires certain fortitude and a willingness to endure pain and heartbreak. Only true fans can really understand this. When everyone else says, “Grow up” or “Get a life”, we just shake our heads with the knowledge that the non-fan lacks discernment. A true fan connects to a team the way one connects to immediate family; we are wrapped up in our team’s identity, its players form part of our secret inner circle. I can criticize a player on my team, but if a Phillies fan knocks my second baseman, he just may find extra spices in his cheese steak, if you catch my drift."- "The End of Winter"

"If my world were to end tomorrow, I need only look back on my experience as a father, on the pleasure, humor, and excitement of watching young minds develop and characters formed, to know that it was all worthwhile. Whatever sadness my life has experienced, and whatever regrets about my choices and outcomes, I know that I am blessed, that life has been easier for me than for most. The small joys, the little pleasures, these will have been enough." - "Life Goes On"

(c) 2013 by Mark J. Ehlers
Bookstand Publishing

ORDER Life Goes On

 Eat Bananas and Follow Your Heart: 
Essays on Life, Politics, Baseball, and Religion

Eat Bananas and Follow Your Heart is Ehlers' first collection of interesting and touching essays on life, politics, baseball, and religion. It is for anyone who believes that life is too short to remain uninvolved, time too precious to cease learning, thinking, caring, and laughing.

“It was not until I turned 50 earlier this year . . . that I sensed for the first time that certain of my dreams may forever be deferred, that time is a gift, its limits felt with the passing of each year. Though it seems as if I need constant reminding that I am no longer a young man, fresh from law school, determined to accomplish high-minded things, I remain confident and sure of myself about certain matters, full of doubts and insecurities about others. But I now recognize and feel, gradually, incrementally, the burdens of aging . . . I know now that life is not forever. Mortality awaits me and, for the first time in my life, I am truly aware of its dimensions. This is not necessarily a bad thing, for it forces one to recognize the truly important things in life – family, relationships, closeness with God, and the true meaning of success. As Albert Huffstickler wrote, ‘Knowing there's only so much time, I don't rejoice less but more.’” - “The Meaning of Fifty: A Personal Reflection”

“To study American history is, in part, to chronicle the distance between the ideals of American democracy and the realities of American life. One cannot proclaim to love America, yet ignore its blemishes. A true patriot recognizes the glorious nature of America’s past, but strives constantly to achieve that which our founders hoped to achieve – ‘to form a more perfect Union’ as stated in the preamble to the Constitution – and to narrow the distance between our ideals and our shortcomings.” - “Notes on Patriotism and Celebrating America”

“Somewhere along the way, we seem to have lost sight of the common good; we have failed to recognize that the human race is in dire need of a helping hand, some understanding, and kindness, and that we are all in this journey together. Perhaps a search for meaning and purpose, in our work, in our relationships, in our lives, will lead the way to creating a more just and compassionate world, and an economic system that rewards hard work and success without leaving all others behind.” - “On Economics, Values, and Meaning”

“Perhaps someday I will grow up, develop perspective, finally realize that baseball is only a game, a pastime, a place of pastoral beauty, symmetry, and timeless perfection intended to soothe a weary soul. For now, I am forced to face the fall alone.” - “Life as a Cardinals Fan: Of Hope and Heartbreak”

“It is during these brief moments of sanity, in the quiet solitude of an off day, when I understand why those closest to me may mistakenly believe that my life during baseball season falls into an abyss of warped priorities.” - “Random Thoughts at the All-Star Break”

(c) 2011 by Mark J. Ehlers
Bookstand Publishing