Sunday, December 30, 2012

The Last Word . . . For Now

Every secret of a writer’s soul, every experience of his life, every quality of his mind, is written large in his works. – Virginia Woolf
In the spring of 1987, Faye Moscowitz, a soft-spoken instructor and author, introduced me to the personal essay in a night class on creative writing at the Edmund Burke School in Washington, D.C. Two years earlier, Moscowitz had published A Leak in the Heart: Tales from a Woman’s Life, a collection of short, autobiographical essays on growing up in a small Michigan town, in an unassimilated Orthodox Jewish family, during the 1930’s and 1940’s. Her writing is elegant and simple. In A Leak in the Heart, her words paint a picture, frozen in time, of the insular world of her youth, days of struggle and conflict, when she was torn between the comfort of tradition and the seduction of modernity. She describes feeling the blues at Christmas while in third grade, when it seemed everyone around her was celebrating the birth of Christ and she was an outsider, unable to fit in; of marrying at the age of eighteen and settling for a life of child rearing and housekeeping, because that is what was expected of young Orthodox Jewish women in those days. She writes of when, in her thirties, she developed the self-confidence to attend college while raising four children, and of how she eventually became a political activist and feminist, a writer and a teacher.

Her writing class consisted of ten students, men and women of all ages and stages in life who sought an outlet for their more creative selves. Seekers all of us, we listened to Moscowitz discuss the process of writing creatively about personal memories and experiences. She assigned us writing exercises to get us started, and each week in class we read aloud our work and offered each other constructive criticism. It was Moscowitz who taught me the most important lesson of all: simply write and the words will form. My writing was undisciplined and uneven back then, but I learned that if I did not put pen to paper, I would never write at all.

Although I would take another writing class in the summer of 2001, taught by a lawyer turned writer who encouraged me to pursue more seriously the craft of writing, these brief diversions into creativity failed to induce in me a commitment to write for pleasure, to devote the time and attention required to pursue writing even for the simple love of writing. Through the years, I contemplated often a life of writing, but did little to follow through. Without a reason to write, or a class-imposed deadline, there was always an excuse – work, parental responsibilities, and lack of time – some reason or obstacle that stood in the way.

But that finally changed in August 2009, when I began writing the collection of essays found on these pages. A small but committed readership and imaginary, self-imposed deadlines encouraged me to write with some regularity, to create what is now Ehlers on Everything. For the past three-and-a-half years I have made time to think, write, and engage with the world. Publishing the essays and stories on this site has been a labor of love and has allowed me to express my thoughts, opinions, and insights on aspects of my life and the lives of others; to explore my passions – baseball, politics, and religion; to ask questions, about life, faith, and the things that matter. It has allowed me to write about universal themes that affect everyone, but which many of us often overlook or ignore; to write about the enduring condition of the human spirit, the beauty of redemption and second chances, the power of compassion and my hopes for humankind.

Over what are now 120 essays, I have reflected on the passage of time and unmet dreams; the conflicts of faith in a secular age and the quest for eternal truth; my bond with baseball, in which I see life in all its dimensions and which allows me to recapture, in words, the essence of lost youth. I have examined issues of war and peace, law and economics, social justice and civic obligation. I have attempted to provide a perspective on the key social and political issues of our time without, I hope, being overly judgmental or disrespectful of opposing views. I have promoted civility in our political discourse. I have suggested that Americans have much for which to be proud, but that we should not be smug, for we alone do not have all the answers to the world’s problems. I have written about the people I admire and from whom I find inspiration, and about historical events for which I find parallels and guidance for confronting today’s challenges.

As another year comes to a close, as violent conflict continues to rage in Afghanistan and the Middle East, as gun violence continues to cut short the lives of our children here at home, as our politics continues to be fragmented and our nation divided, I am taking a temporary sabbatical from Ehlers on Everything. I do not intend to stop writing, only to change venue, to modify the location of my canvas. The recent tragedy in Newtown proves that, while I could continue to write about many of the same issues over again, I risk repeating myself while offering little in the way of fresh insight and perspective. Although I will happily trade my day job should The New York Times come calling, I am not a columnist that needs to submit 1,000 words of material on current events every third day. It is time to pursue more creative avenues for my writing, to explore fiction and the short story as an art form, to confront humanity in all its dimensions. A year-long foray into fiction will, I hope, allow me to further examine in-depth the themes of redemption and forgiveness, the disappointment of dreams unfulfilled, our aspirations for the human spirit, the ever present search for God in the messiness that is life on Earth, and other issues and themes more flexibly explored in the context of fiction.

“We write to taste life twice,” wrote Anais Nin, “in the moment and in retrospect.” I do not write for money or fame; if those were my goals, I have failed miserably. I love to write – not because it is easy, it is not – for it allows me to better understand the world in all its complexity. Writing forces clarity of thought and a deeper sense of self-awareness. Words matter, and a well-crafted essay or story has the power to move people, to change hearts and minds, if only for a moment. “The difference between the right word and the almost right word,” wrote Mark Twain, “is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug.”

“If you want to be a writer,” teaches Stephen King, “you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot.” It is for this reason I must devote more time to reading, studying, and reflecting, to further refine my writing and develop and encourage my creative instincts; to explore in a less restrictive platform my quest for the human spirit; and to write about experiences that have influenced my outlook on life, the people that move and inspire me, and the issues that continue to confound all of us.

Thomas Mann once said, “A writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.” That is certainly true for me. But while I must continue to write, think, and read, I must also allow myself the opportunity to fail. Only if I push myself beyond my limits; only if I demand perfection where such is impossible, can I ever seek to be a writer.

Some of the essays on these pages, including those published in Eat Bananas and Follow Your Heart (Bookstand Publishing, 2011) and others I hope to publish in an upcoming collection, have started conversations and allowed us to talk about matters of importance. The essays have on occasion allowed us to reflect on life, faith, mortality, and the human condition, to examine questions and issues often neglected and overlooked in the noise of life. Some of my writing is self-directed, for how could it otherwise be? It is what I know, and about the only thing upon which I can speak with some authority. But I never intended these essays to be self-centered; to the extent I have failed in this, I offer my sincerest regrets.

Last Spring, I attended two commencement ceremonies, Jennifer’s graduation from American University in May and Hannah’s graduation from Upper Dublin High School in June. Commencements are happy and sad affairs all at once. We are happy and proud of our children’s’ accomplishments, but sad that they are moving on to a new journey. The commencement ceremony is a stark reminder that life moves quickly and that we must savor precious moments while we can. But in our sadness we should not forget that a commencement is not the end of something, but the start of something new, for the word itself means “the beginning”. So, this is my commencement of sorts, my graduation from Ehlers on Everything, the start of a new journey in fiction and short stories, and an attempt to more deeply reflect on life and the adventures, conflicts, and passions that come with it.

Henry David Thoreau admonished, “How vain it is to sit down to write when you have not stood up to live.” I do not know if I have met Thoreau’s standards, if I have “stood up to live.” But in some small way, from the pleasure writing gives me to the soulful insights of the written word, I have come to grasp a deeper involvement with life and the world. I abhor small talk. My notion of success differs from that of mainstream culture. I take comfort in the words of author Erica Kennedy, who died this year at the youthful age of 42 and once asked what “having it all” actually means. “Does it mean having some fancy title, executive perks, making a lot of money, having your book on The New York Times’s best-seller list? Or does it mean waking up and looking forward to your day, whatever you make of it?”

In our remaining time on Earth, may we all wake up and look forward to the days and make something of them. To all of my faithful readers, and to anyone else who has ever ventured to these pages and spent even a little time here, you have my deepest thanks and gratitude. May peace come to you this New Year and may the world be filled with love and compassion for all.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Marty and Gertrude: An American Story

You must live in the present, launch yourself on every wave, find your eternity in each moment. - Henry David Thoreau
Some people believe in destiny and fate, others in free will. For most of 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.

Through my relationship with Andrea, I have been blessed these past ten years to have come to know two extraordinary human beings, Marty and Gertrude Gelman. They are Andrea’s parents, but more importantly, they are models of decency and how to live one’s life; two people who together have confronted life’s many challenges and built lives of rich fulfillment.

Born in the roaring twenties and raised in the Great Depression, survivors of the Great War, the story of Martin and Gertrude Gelman is an American story. They first met in 1938, when the photograph above was taken. I am not certain who took the picture, but at that very moment Gert Golden, a sassy 15 year-old girl from West Oak Lane, was introduced to Marty Gelman of the Logan section of Philadelphia. The young man making the introduction was Marty’s best friend, Seymour Frank. Gertrude and Seymour were dating at the time and, not surprisingly, Seymour had taken a liking to her. But this was the Great Depression, times were tough, and Seymour had landed a job for the summer as a busboy in New Jersey. As he would not have the means or a car to return to Philadelphia during the summer, he hoped Marty could keep an eye on Gert while Seymour was away.

Marty, whose back is to the camera in the above photograph, was nothing if not a young man of his word, so he was most happy to oblige. And keep an eye on her he did. By the time Seymour returned at summer’s end, Marty confessed that he and Gertrude had fallen in love. Six years later, they were married; it is a bond that has lasted sixty-eight years and counting.

When Seymour told this story a few weeks ago at Gertrude’s 90th birthday celebration, he acknowledged his disappointment at the course of events. “But,” he said, “If someone was going to steal away my girl, at least it should be my best friend.” As Seymour quipped, “There is nothing I wouldn’t do for Marty, and nothing Marty wouldn’t do for me. And we’ve spent our whole lives doing nothing for each other.” Seymour proudly noted that, seven decades later, he, Marty, and Gertrude remain the best of friends. But as for Marty, Seymour added with a twinkle, “I never did trust the son-of-a-bitch.”

* * * *

“Life is like a blanket too short,” wrote Marion Howard. “You pull it up and your toes rebel, you yank it down and shivers meander about your shoulder; but cheerful folks manage to draw their knees up and pass a very comfortable night.” The most amazing thing about Gertrude is her upbeat and positive manner. It is a cheeriness that defies logic once you know something of her young life. Born in 1922 to a tailor’s family in Philadelphia, Gertrude was five years old when her mother was hospitalized. It was a tragic story, one that Gertrude would only piece together in later years, with the benefit of time and distance; a story of conflict and disharmony. But for a young child in need of a mother’s love, it could only have been confusing and frightening.

A year later, Gertrude’s father, a lifelong smoker, developed lung cancer, became very ill and was hospitalized. Gertrude, now six and essentially parentless, was sent to live with relatives, a family of modest means with many mouths to feed. It would be only a temporary home. The last time Gertrude saw her father was towards the end of 1929, close to her seventh birthday. She remembers the year because only a few months earlier the stock market crashed, plunging the country into the Great Depression. Her father, who remained sick in bed, died not long after.

Parentless at the age of seven, Gertrude was eventually placed in foster care, cared for by the Association of Jewish Children of Philadelphia. She moved from home-to-home, five in all, some better and more caring than others. She remained a foster child until the age of 16, when she moved in with her oldest brother, Jack, and his wife, Fritzie. Although she saw her mother once at the age of 13 and sporadically thereafter, the visits were often difficult and unsatisfying. It was not a sheltered, pampered, or privileged life. Life was hard. But through it all, Gertrude never lost her sense of optimism. She has said that once, around the age of ten and feeling sorry for herself, she came to the realization that her destiny was in her hands. “And then I stopped crying and got on with my life.”

In 1940, two years after she met Marty, Gertrude graduated from Olney High School. But most girls in those days didn’t attend college, so she went to work, earning ten dollars a week at J. Schwartz & Company, a furniture store on Germantown Avenue. She and Marty would later become engaged, but when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor in December 1941, Marty went off to war. Gertrude landed a job at the Frankford Arsenal, delivering mail and doing administrative tasks for the Small Arms Department, Mail and Records. Perhaps it was there that Gertrude developed the philosophy that has served her well all these years. “Smile at people and they will smile back.” “Laugh a lot – at how ridiculous life is. It helps you get through a lot of the hurt.” “Above all else, do no harm.”

A weaker person may have lost hope and become bitter at life’s offerings, but Gertrude never lost her positive outlook and always treated people with friendliness and kindness. Although she is not a deeply religious person, deep down, I believe, she has a faith, in God or the human spirit, which helps her get through difficult times. She could not have helped but wonder every day whether a telegram would arrive informing her that Marty had been killed in action, news that would afflict hundreds of thousands of wives and girlfriends, mothers and fathers, throughout that deadly war. But Gertrude never lost hope and, by the summer of 1944, Marty had completed his 50 missions and returned home. They were married three days later.

Over the next several years, Gertrude gave birth to three children and took care of the household while Marty worked days and attended graduate school at night. An intelligent and intellectually engaged woman, in later years Gertrude would go back to school, first at Montgomery County Community College, and later, Beaver College (now Arcadia University) in Glenside, Pennsylvania, receiving her bachelor’s degree in 1982 at the youthful age of 59. She even found time to take care of stray animals, including an injured baby squirrel that had fallen from its nest. Whenever her children complained, she would have none of it. All of them recognized, as adults, just how right she was. They knew that their mother was the foundation of her family, a rock of stability, and the strength of the Gelman clan.

[T]he powerful play goes on, and you will contribute a verse. ~Walt Whitman, "O Me! O Life!", Leaves of Grass
I know less of Marty’s childhood years, except that they were happier and more stable, the perfect antidote to Gertrude’s young life. Marty was the son of Jacob Gelman, a printer who owned a shop on Cherry Street in Philadelphia, next door to Kelly for Brickwork, owned by the father of Grace Kelly. Gelman’s Sign and Printing was a family affair, co-founded by Jacob and his two brothers, with family members performing all of the tasks needed to run and operate the business.

Marty was a smart, street-wise kid with an intellectual bent. As an eleven year-old boy in 1932, when the Japanese invaded Manchuria, he sensed that another world war was on the horizon. His parents did not discuss current affairs, but Marty paid close attention. By the time he met Gertrude in the late 1930’s, he was very aware of world events and followed the political rise and growing power of Hitler with great trepidation. Then, on December 7, 1941, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor and the whole world changed. Marty was 20 years old. Like many young men at the time, my uncle Ted (my Dad’s oldest brother) included, he enlisted. Life would never be the same again.

Years later, Marty would describe the heavy cloud that hovered above as he left for training camp, a burden he now recognizes as “sadness, numbness”. He worried that he would not measure up as a man and wondered how, as a Jewish kid from Philadelphia, he would be perceived and accepted by the gentiles, particularly in a war that he knew would have a profound impact on Jews. Like most of the young men he was about to meet, he was “frightened, distraught, filled with despair.” Soon he would realize that, from the vantage point of a scared soldier, religion and ethnicity and differences mattered not at all. All were Americans fighting for freedom and peace.

He was stationed in Italy and served as lead navigator in the 15th Air Force, 450th Bombardment Group, which flew B-24 Liberators. Now considered a member of the Greatest Generation, he scoffs at such a notion. “Each day I awoke with terror of not wondering if I would die, but how I would die,” he said during an interview in the fall of 2007. “Each day that passed was just a postponement of tomorrow’s execution.” He loved receiving mail but found it difficult to write home. “What was there to say when you know that tomorrow you will have to die. To this day, I don’t understand how it turned out otherwise.”

Through the grace of God and the fortunes of fate, Marty made it through the war, surviving 50 missions over enemy occupied Europe, earning the Distinguished Flying Cross and countless medals and honors. His crew survived three forced landings in the mountains of Corsica, but in the end, he was the only one that made it back unscathed. His last mission, the 50th, was aborted three times before his crew was granted a three-day reprieve for some R&R in Bari, off the coast of the Adriatic Sea. But Marty was impatient and ready to go home. He could not tolerate the delay, so he volunteered for another mission, with another crew. An angel must have watched over him that day. “I caught a break,” he recalled years later. “It was a milk run. There was no flak, there were no fighters.” With 50 missions completed, he could now go home. His return was bittersweet; perhaps it was fate, or just plain dumb luck, but on the very next mission flown by Marty’s assigned crew, the plane was shot down. The crew members who survived became prisoners of war. As Gertrude later recalled, “Marty’s bewilderment at the bizarre manipulation of fate . . . left him numb.”

“The events in our lives happen in a sequence in time,” wrote Eudora Welty, “but in their significance to ourselves, they find their own order ... the continuous thread of revelation.” It took fourteen long days for Marty to get back to the shores of the United States (by ship) and, as no one in his family knew precisely when he was to arrive, when Marty reached his parents’ house in Philadelphia, no one was home. He got on the phone and called Gertrude, who came over right away. His family had gone to Atlantic City for the day, but when they learned of Marty’s arrival, they rushed home. That night, Marty and Gertrude made plans to marry and, three days later, they were husband and wife. The rest is history. Three wonderful, accomplished children, four beautiful grandchildren, and a life of love and fulfillment.

While working at the family print shop, Marty attended Temple University at night and eventually earned two Ph.D.’s (Anthropology and Psychology). He began a successful clinical practice and taught for 45 years at Montgomery County Community College, where he was one of its first professors in 1964, and where he molded and impressed the minds of thousands of grateful students. Never having forgotten the unheralded protection that the Tuskegee Airmen had provided his B-24 crew during the war, and sensitive to the slights caused by discrimination and prejudice, Marty, as head of the Social Sciences Department, was instrumental in hiring the college's first African American professor. He also mentored and supported the African American Student League, for which he was given special recognition at a 2008 Martin Luther King Day celebration, the only white professor in the college’s history so recognized.

In looking back on his time at war, on the death and destruction that was a part of everyday life for young men in their late teens and early twenties, Marty has recalled that it took more than 30 years before he could resurrect the pain and heartache he experienced in combat. It is a pain that “has made it difficult for me to cry about loss or to fully face life head on.” He dismisses the notion that war makes a man out of you. “War makes a man out of no one,” he insists. “The best it does is rip away the filter of illusion and scald you with the reality of the baseness of human existence. It’s a waste. The military isn’t cruel, it just doesn’t give a damn.”

Sometimes our light goes out but is blown into flame by another human being. Each of us owes deepest thanks to those who have rekindled this light. – Albert Schweitzer
I have only known Martin and Gertrude Gelman for ten years or so, but my life has been greatly enriched because of it. As with my own parents, it is hard to imagine two people better suited for each other. They are generous to a fault, love their children unconditionally, and continue to look at the world and the human race with a healthy dose of humor. “We are a rotten species,” Marty often jokes. But their love of America is unrivaled and their appreciation for a good book, a good lecture, sage advice, and a young child’s smile is readily apparent. Good conversationalists, you can always anticipate a lively debate, or a story or two, when eating dinner with the Gelmans. Gertrude remains the optimistic, upbeat one; perhaps from a deep-seated recognition of the deprivations of the human spirit and weakness of human character, Marty remains the realist.

“God asks no man whether he will accept life,” wrote Henry Ward Beecher. “That is not the choice. You must take it. The only question is how.” Martin and Gertrude Gelman are the rare breed of human beings who have accepted life’s many challenges and risen above them without complaint. We choose our own destiny in life and must make the most of it. Erma Bombeck once said, “When I stand before God at the end of my life, I would hope that I would not have a single bit of talent left, and could say, ‘I used everything you gave me.’” Here is to Marty and Gertrude, an extraordinary couple who gave life everything they had. The world needs more people like them.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Gather Ye Rosebuds

I was a few weeks shy of my fifteenth birthday when this photograph was taken in the spring of 1974. A first baseman/pitcher for the Hightstown Rams Freshman Baseball team, I am the first person on the left, kneeling in the front row, the serious looking one with the black batting gloves and blue-and-white wristbands – pretty cool, huh? As a motley bunch of adolescent males adorned in faded and used, mismatched uniforms, we were a low budget operation from an undistinguished school district. We were not the Greatest Generation or the most talented group of ballplayers that ever existed, but we were young, full of energy, and serious about our craft. At that moment in time, we did not yet realize that our dreams were unrealistic, that our lives in baseball would essentially end a few years hence. But for a few hours every day in the spring of ‘74, we were a team.

“I see great things in baseball,” said Walt Whitman. “It's our game - the American game.” Baseball is a part of the American landscape, an essential component of our history. Whenever I fly to another city, I try for a window seat so I can look down on the vast countryside below as the plane begins its descent. It helps me appreciate the beauty and majesty that is America, the diversity of our geography and the expanse of our physical environment. But the one common denominator in every city and town I visit, the one thing that links us as a culture and a people, are the many baseball fields and ballparks that blend into the earth’s surface. Not all ball fields are equal, to be sure. A few have perfectly manicured grass fields and well-defined fences, fancy dugouts and lights; many others show signs of neglect, a blotchy mixture of dirt and brown grass and paint-chipped benches. But the dimensions remain constant, the bases ninety feet apart, the pitcher’s mound sixty feet six inches from home plate. The sights and sounds, the smell of grass and dirt and some guy named Frank smoking a cigar on the sidelines can be found at almost every park. It is a game for romantics; the dreams imagined and experienced on these fields are the same that young boys across America (and Latin America) have experienced for more than a century.

I grew up in central New Jersey, the cultural wasteland which influenced the early music of Bruce Springsteen, who grew up fifteen minutes away in Freehold. Hightstown was but an exit on the New Jersey Turnpike (Exit 8), a way station for commuters, a mere afterthought that lingered in the shadows of the great cities to our north and south. My brother Steve and I developed our fielding skills by hitting ground balls to each other, over and over again, in our backyard, a quarter-of-an-acre of converted farmland that had been turned into the housing developments you find in middle-class communities all across the United States. Every third house looks just like the other, distinguished only by the color of the shingles, a hint of brickwork, or the placement of trees and bushes in the front yard. On warm days could be heard the hum of a lawnmower or the rhythm of children riding bicycles. There was little to do in Hightstown, no art museums or great universities, no historical landmarks. It was an all-American town of pizza parlors and hoagie shops, gas stations and convenience stores.

But I never felt at a loss for something to do. My life was sports, my love was baseball. My friends and I played touch football in the fall, basketball in the winter, and baseball all spring and summer. Unless I was sick or a severe Nor’easter was underway, not a day went by that I didn’t have a ball of some kind in my hand. Whether tossing a football at the neighborhood park, shooting hoops in my driveway (the backboard and net at regulation height above our garage), playing groundball games or sock ball with my brother, or throwing a baseball against pitch back netting in my backyard, thoughts of big league glory filled my head, the imaginary crowds erupting upon my every display of choreographed heroics.

There comes a time in life when you must outgrow childhood dreams, when your ambitions must shift to more practical, important, and socially useful endeavors. When, finally, in the words of John Thorn, “the dream of playing big-time baseball is relinquished so we can get on with grown-up things.”

Nearly four decades has passed since that freshman season, but I still remember the final game of the spring. In four trips to the plate, I had hit the ball hard every time with only one double to show for it. In my last two at bats I laced long, arcing fly balls into deep left field. Unfortunately, the leftfielder was standing somewhere in Pennsylvania (we had no fences) and he tracked both fly balls, catching each of them just after I had rounded first base and headed to second. Our coach, Charlie Pesce (standing at the far right in the back row, next to the statistician), a stern but fair man who expected much and demanded more, an authority figure I respected and admired, came up to me after that game as I stood by my locker. He was much shorter than I, but it did not detract from his authoritative air. He reached out his hand and said, “Congratulations on a good season. You have a future, son.” He could not have known how much those words meant to me at the time, or how much they would hurt a few years later when I abandoned my dream of playing professional baseball.

"Time is a very misleading thing,” said George Harrison. “We can gain experience from the past, but we can't relive it.” I would play only three more seasons of organized baseball, some Senior Babe Ruth League, varsity high school and American Legion ball, until I accepted, finally, that baseball was not a career option. My eyesight betrayed me and I had yet to discover contact lenses; I began to swing late on pitches and possibly lacked the mental toughness to reach a higher level. I became distracted by the noise of life, or maybe I didn’t need baseball as much as I thought I did. I have few regrets about where life has led me. But when, as I occasionally do, I wander over to a high school ballgame and take in an inning or two under the twilight sun, I cannot help but think back and relive those moments, now frozen in time, when I was a young man with a glove on my knee, legs slightly bent, shouting encouragement to the pitcher in anticipation of the next pitch and the batter's reaction. It is at those moments, even today, when I wonder if I could have done better, achieved more, and turned the hopes and dreams of that wrist-band wearing teenager into reality.

Eleanor Roosevelt once said, “The purpose of life is to live it, to taste experience to the utmost, to reach out eagerly and without fear for newer and richer experience.” I have tried to live my life with this in mind. But there is a part of me that never left the scrappy, bumpy, low budget ball fields of my youth. To this day, there is something soothing and certain about baseball, which is partly why I cannot escape its absorbing pull. Baseball is one of the few constants in a disorderly world. “If you get three strikes,” said Bill Veeck, “even the best lawyer in the world can't get you off.” There is a comfort to such order, to knowing that, at the end of each season, the outcome is fair, the results a close approximation of individual and team accomplishment.

I do not know where most of my freshman teammates are today. Many of them played with me at more senior levels, but the year I left for college, my family moved to New England. I don’t know how many of my teammates attended college, got married, divorced, or had families of their own. I cannot tell you today where most of them live or even how many are still alive (though sadly, Bobby Spearman, the lone African American on that team, and one of the nicest guys you would ever want to meet, died a few years ago, just past his 50th birthday). I was not friends with all of the young men in that freshman baseball picture. Hell, I didn’t even like all of them. But when I look back on this picture, I am filled with a sense of compassion and admiration for every one of them.

Gather ye rosebuds while ye may,
Old time is still a-flying:
And this same flower that smiles to-day
To-morrow will be dying.

The glorious lamp of heaven, the sun,
The higher he's a-getting,
The sooner will his race be run,
And nearer he's to setting.

That age is best which is the first,
When youth and blood are warmer;
But being spent, the worse, and worst
Times still succeed the former.

Then be not coy, but use your time,
And while ye may, go marry:
For having lost but once your prime
You may for ever tarry.
--Robert Herrick

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Interfaith Reflections: A Note to My Daughters

There are different kinds of gifts, but the same Spirit.
There are different kinds of service, but the same Lord.
There are different kinds of working, but the same God works all of them in all people.
--1 Corinthians 12:4
Dear Jennifer and Hannah,

It seems like only yesterday that you were two young girls finding your way in the world, wishing to be entertained by the theatrical escapades of Charlie Horse and Kermit the Frog (Executive Producer: Dad), while discovering the beauty, wonder, and dangers of the world around you. Through the years, I have watched you grow and develop into kind, caring, compassionate, and well-adjusted young women. While your lives remain in their early stages, your accomplishments many and futures bright, you will almost certainly confront many challenges and dilemmas along the way. I will climb mountains and jump through fire whenever you need me, though I know that time, distance and mortality may make it impossible for me to always be there for you. So, as we give thanks for another year of life’s blessings, I wanted to express my hope that, as you wade through the many obstacles and decisions of life, you seek God’s presence and take seriously your individual faith journeys.

I am a preacher’s kid, so it is no surprise that religion was a major force in my life, personally and intellectually, for as long as I can remember. I attended church and Sunday school every week, was baptized and confirmed, memorized the Christian creeds, actively participated in Lutheran youth groups, and took comfort in the expressions of love and acceptance I found in the church community. Your grandfather’s professional standing in the Lutheran church, including eight years as Bishop of the New Jersey Lutheran Synod in the 1970’s, and your grandmother’s devout Christian faith, has naturally affected my worldview. My ethical and moral values, my politics, and my interest in other faith traditions have been influenced in some way by the centrality of religion in my family’s life during those formative years.

It was not until my early twenties, when I attended law school, that I began to seriously consider and challenge my own beliefs and assumptions about matters of faith, religion, God, and the cosmos. When I married your Mom at the age of 28, I was content with the notion of two equally valid faith traditions peacefully coexisting in a state of mutual respect. Not until the two of you came into this world was I forced to confront the importance of faith in my life and the lives of my children.

By then, my feelings toward Christianity had grown complicated. I remained connected to my Lutheran heritage, proud of my involvement with the Lutheran Volunteer Corps in Washington, D.C., and of the extensive advocacy and worldwide relief efforts of the Lutheran church on behalf of developing nations and the world’s poorest citizens. I was proud also of the example set by your grandfather as a socially conscience and politically aware Lutheran minister, one who practiced his faith in the world and all its messiness, providing counsel and comfort to pastors and parishioners, young and old alike. And I have always been amazed by your grandmother’s lifelong devotion and commitment to the church and to helping others. And yet, despite these positive experiences and influences, I personally struggled over the literal meaning of the traditional Christian creeds and doctrines. I began to question many of Christianity’s fundamental tenets and could no longer reconcile my head with my heart. And I refused to accept the belief of some Christians that the saving grace of God was denied to people of other faith traditions whom I loved and respected.

Theologically, I felt very much at home with liberal Judaism and its emphasis on living an ethical life, doing good deeds, and working for justice, principles shared by the mainline Protestant experience of my past, particularly the progressive Christianity as practiced by Luther Place when we lived in Washington. I also was fond of Judaism’s emphasis on education and intellectual inquiry, its openness to questions in a non-judgmental way. I continued to have a great affinity for the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth, and because Christianity is rooted in Judaism – Jesus was born a Jew, lived his life as a Jew, and died a Jew – I felt it did not compromise my integrity to participate actively in your Jewish education and upbringing, something that would not be true of your mom had she been asked to raise you as Christians.

For me, it was not particularly important to which faith tradition you were exposed. What was most important to me was that you be allowed to develop a rich heritage and a religious identity, to have a rock upon which to stand when life’s waters sometimes overflow. Any ambivalence I had about raising you as Jews stemmed mostly from a concern that non-orthodox American Judaism encompasses such a wide spectrum of religious and non-religious elements, and includes not only the Reform, Conservative, and Reconstructionist movements, but many secular, humanist, and New Age philosophies that have little connection or relevance to Judaism or religion. I have encountered many American Jews with little sense of spirituality and much skepticism about God and faith. That one could be theologically agnostic, or even an atheist, and yet maintain a strong Jewish identity is a notion at odds with my Christian experience, where one’s belief system is the defining element of one’s religion; in the Christian tradition, without God and faith, religion lacks purpose and meaning. I have spoken with many rabbis who share my concern, and I have been pleased to see a renewed sense of spirituality in American Judaism over the past few decades. Because while I always want you to have a strong sense of who you are, including a Jewish identity and pride in Jewish culture and history, I also desire that you maintain faith in God, a higher force that you can turn to in times of distress. Achieving an internal peace with God is something I wish for everyone, but something I desperately desire for you.

“The supreme issue is today not the halacha for the Jew or the Church for the Christian,” writes Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, “but the premise underlying both religions, namely, whether there is a pathos, a divine reality concerned with the destiny of man which mysteriously impinges upon history; the supreme issue is whether we are alive or dead to the challenge and the expectation of the living God.” It is, in many ways, what binds us together as human beings. I hope you someday take the time to study and read some of Heschel’s writings, as he offers gentle wisdom and a deep understanding of the essence of faith. “The crisis engulfs all of us,” he writes. “The misery and fear of alienation from God make Jew and Christian cry together.”

Although I cannot tell you what to believe or how to find God in your life, I can at least share with you what I believe. It seems we rarely discuss such things any more, but I think it important from time to time to consider and contemplate the mystery that is faith and creation, and to strive for deeper knowledge and understanding of God’s relationship to humankind.

For as long as I can remember, I have believed that God exists and is very much a part of our world. Although my concept of God has evolved over time, I understand now that God is a mystery, impossible to comprehend. But if you look carefully at the world around you and listen to the whispering silence of a gentle autumn breeze, if you watch a flock of geese fly in formation as they migrate south for winter; if you examine the stars on a clear night and consider the vastness of the universe, you will discover that God is everywhere. That there exists a little bit of God in everyone, waiting to be recognized, and that God provides guidance to those who sincerely seek God’s wisdom, seems more apparent now than ever. God is our conscience and our soul; God is nature. And though God may not actively intervene in our lives – God cannot do good things for us or prevent harm to us – God suffers with us when we are in pain and communicates with us through the people who inspire us and the people who need our time and attention, from a child in need of a parent’s love to the homeless beggar on the streets of our cities. When we ignore the suffering of others, we ignore God.

I believe that God listens to our prayers and attempts to provide answers, but we must look, listen, and search for those answers in the world around us. I believe in a compassionate and understanding God, a God of love who expects us (commands us in the Jewish tradition) to live an ethical and just life, to treat others with kindness and concern, to treat all of God’s creations – the grass, the trees, our lakes and rivers, the animal world, and most especially each other – with respect and love. “What is faith,” asked Mohandas Gandhi, “if it is not translated into action?”

Bishop Desmond Tutu, who helped guide South Africa in the 1980’s away from the racially-oppressive system of apartheid and through a process of racial reconciliation, reminded us that our humanity is bound up in each other, “for we can only be human together.” It is a simple, but important principle that applies to our everyday lives, our politics, our religious practices, and our respect for those from whom we differ. “All things are bound together,” said Chief Oren Lyons of the Onandaga Nation. “[A]ll things connect. Whatever befalls the earth, befalls also the children of the earth."

Life is beautiful and wonderful, full of joy and laughter, love and kindness. But it also involves no shortage of heartache. Sadly, you already have experienced tragedy and pain in life through the loss of your friends Hannah and Natan at such young ages. And you will face more loss as life goes on. This is a certainty. Eleanor Roosevelt said, “People grow through experience if they meet life honestly and courageously. This is how character is built.” In Strength to Love, Martin Luther King, Jr., wrote, “The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.” As you confront life’s challenges, I hope you find inspiration in the words of Dr. King and never lose your sense of idealism, justice, and compassion for others. And when you feel overwhelmed by life’s controversies, when your spirit is challenged, think of Anne Frank, a young girl of great courage and character who maintained her ideals during a time that for most of us would have been the depth of darkness. In her diary, shortly before her death, Anne Frank wrote:
It’s really a wonder that I haven’s dropped all my ideals, because they seem so absurd and impossible to carry out. Yet I keep them, because in spite of everything I still believe that people are really good at heart. . . . I can feel the sufferings of millions and yet, if I look up into the heavens, I think that it will all come right, that this cruelty too will end, and that peace and tranquility will return again. In the meantime, I must uphold my ideals, for perhaps the time will come when I shall be able to carry them out.
Although today’s world is not as immediately perilous as the world in which Anne Frank lived, our world nevertheless presents sad news and insecurity every day. If you remain true to yourselves, live your lives with integrity, and remain caring and loving persons, you will always have the respect of others and the love of many. Believe in yourselves, believe in God, feel God’s presence and see it in each other and in all of humanity, and you will find meaning and purpose in your lives. “The real and the spiritual are one,” wrote Heschel, “like body and soul in a living [person]. It is for the law to clear the path; it is for the soul to sense the spirit.” Be open to a sense of spirit in your lives; open your heart to God and trust that you can do anything to which you commit your heart and mind. Then, your only limitations will be of your own making.

With love always,


Saturday, November 3, 2012

The End of Summer

You may glory in a team triumphant, but you fall in love with a team in defeat. Losing after great striving is the story of man, who was born to sorrow, whose sweetest songs tell of saddest thought, and who, if he is a hero, does nothing in life as becomingly as leaving it. – Roger Kahn, The Boys of Summer
Hurricane Sandy has come and gone, leaving in its wake downed trees and power lines, flooded shores and destruction. Our home in Jenkintown survived with minimal disruption, though others nearby, and many colleagues and friends, were less fortunate. The squirrels in our back yard are particularly anxious, frantically jumping and running in circles as if to say the world has gone mad. They may be on to something. Branches from the large trees lining our property are scattered across the yard, but at least the rain has stopped as a cold front settles in. As I look from the window of my second floor study, I observe the colors of autumn, orange and red leaves falling to the ground, preparing to lay dormant for the winter as the rest of nature quietly anticipates October’s end. Baseball season is over. It is time to put life back into its proper perspective and to rake the leaves once again.

* * * *

Roger Kahn’s romantic sentiment notwithstanding, it is easier to fall in love with a winning team than a losing one. For Giants fans, the gift of a championship will take the edge off of winter’s chill. The next few months will allow the faithful to dwell in the shared joy of a memorable season and look forward to the day when their grandchildren ask about life back when. “I can still remember 2012,” they will say, “when Pablo Sandoval hit three home runs in one World Series game against, who were we playing? Oh, yes, the Tigers. What a glorious year that was.” For the rest of us, it is a winter of painful reflection and thoughts of what might have been. If only Lynn hadn’t thrown the ball away in the fourth inning of Game 5. If only Kozma had fielded the ball cleanly in Game 6. If only . . .

During the early glow of October, one sensed that the miracle run of 2011 might, for Cardinals fans, be replicated. That the Cardinals even made the post-season this year, winning 88 games after losing Albert Pujols to free agency, Tony LaRussa and Dave Duncan to retirement, and Chris Carpenter to injury, was no small feat. They are a likeable bunch, too young and too old at the same time, with just enough talent and heart to always make things interesting.

After securing the second wild card berth on the last day of the regular season, the Cards upset the Braves in a one-game playoff before the hostile, can-throwing, tomahawk-chopping fans in Atlanta. Then, down 6-0 in Game 5 of the NLDS, playing before a loudly enthusiastic crowd in Washington, D.C., they mounted a spectacular, stunning comeback, sparked by a four-run rally with two outs in the top of the ninth that was led by the heroic efforts of a light-hitting utility infielder named Daniel Descalso, and Pete Kozma, a little known minor league shortstop who lingered without distinction until an injury befell Rafael Furcal at the end of August. I took the inspired play as a sign that, just maybe, the baseball gods continued to look with favor upon the Miracle Redbirds.

The good feelings and momentum flowed into the start of the National League Championship Series. The Cardinals quickly took a three-games-to-one lead against the San Francisco Giants and needed only one more victory to advance to the World Series for the second straight season. And yet, I was unable to relax. Perhaps it was the ghosts of postseasons past, but I experienced an eerie sensation, a brooding anxiety that things were not as they appeared. “True baseball fans do not cheer for their teams to win,” wrote Will Leitch, “they cheer for them not to lose. Victory does not come with joy, it comes with relief. Losing causes only pain.” I took little comfort in the historical fact that few major league teams have ever blown a three-games-to-one lead in postseason play. I am, after all, a Cardinals fan. I have committed to memory the years of darkness – 1968, 1985, 1996, and now . . . 2012.

For me, watching the last three games of the NLCS, as the Giants outscored the Cardinals 20-1, was like experiencing a temporary tumor with symptoms of blurred vision, migraines, and acute depression. Chinese water torture may possibly have been an only slightly less pleasurable alternative. Jay, Craig, Beltran, and Holliday all seemed to have lost the feel of the strike zone. Fastballs sailed over the middle of the plate without challenge. Pitches in the dirt resulted in awkward swings and misses. I tried to tell myself that these things happen, that the players are only human. In between prophecies of doom and Armageddon, I remained somewhat hopeful, even after losses in Games Five and Six, that despite these momentary setbacks, one more win could erase all the angst; I would then transfer my anxieties to the World Series, where we could chance a repeat of 2006, the magical year when an underachieving Cardinals team upset the powerful Tigers. It was not to be. Perhaps learning to live with defeat builds character and makes one emotionally stronger. Whatever the truth of such sentiments, I was relieved when the final out came this year, for it put an end to my misery.

* * * *

Within a few days of season’s end, when the players pack up for the winter and return home, I start, even now, to think of next year. For the Cardinals faithful, the future looks hopeful. Rosenthal, Kelly, and Miller, young pitchers with power arms and great stuff that hint at the promise of a more dominant bullpen and rotation; Taveras and Wong, standout minor leaguers ready to compete in the spring for a place in the Show; and another year of Yadier Molina behind the plate, the best catcher in my lifetime. But although I look ahead, I know that baseball and history remain forever linked. It is “the deep Eros of memory that separates baseball from other sports,” writes Dom DeLillo. The memories of childhood and of seasons past, the youthful dreams of one day making it to the major leagues, become the cherished remnants of days gone by. It is easy to forget as a fan that the players we watch perform on the field with such apparent ease were once young boys like us, longing to play before sellout crowds in big league parks. For the select few that actually make it, the pressures of competition and media scrutiny, where every mistake is repeated in high-definition and super-slow motion, diminishes the game’s tranquility and can only make it less fun. As for those of us who some time ago abandoned the dreams of youth, we look longingly at the first baseman who between innings casually flips grounders to the other infielders as music blasts from the loudspeakers. We study the shadow of the center fielder as he plays long toss with the right fielder while waiting for the pitcher to complete his warm-up throws. We absorb and digest the game’s intricate details, recognizing that we once did those same things in the prime of our youth, still believing that, with a simple twist of fate, we could have been there too. How I would love to have had that chance. . . .

“Baseball skill relates inversely to age,” wrote Roger Kahn in The Boys of Summer. “The older a man gets, the better a ball player he was when young, according to the watery eye of memory.” There remain times when I think back to high school, when baseball seemed easy and effortless, when reality and dreams had not yet been reconciled. Only later did I realize that the combination of skill, dedication and luck needed to advance was out of reach, if unknowable. Life would go on, but in a different direction.

There was a time we laughed at the old guys up on the hill. The ones who graduated a couple of years before us, and who would hang around the school and the ballpark still, and would sit on the hoods of their cars and tell us how when they were seniors they did it better, faster, and further. We laughed, because we were still doing it, and all they could do was talk. If our goals were not met, there was next year, but it never occurred to us that one day there would not be a next year, and that the guys sitting on the hoods of their cars at the top of the hill, wishing they could have one more year, willing to settle for one last game, could one day be us. – Tucker Elliott
I have been that guy for some time now, the one seated on the hood of his car, staring into the distance. I often wish I had played a few more years. At twilight on summer nights, I dream thoughts of what might have been had I the bat speed of Beltran or the balance of Pujols, the quick hands of Molina or the scrappiness of Scutaro. It is, in part, why I remain connected to the game. Living vicariously through the Cardinals, I pay heed to the ups-and-downs of a team I know only collectively, and mostly through the lens of a camera. I will, of course, do it all again next year; rejoice when the Cardinals win, silently suffer when they lose, all the while failing to understand why I care so much for the fate of a single team beyond my reach. “Addiction or obsession, love or need,” said Doris Kearns Goodwin, “I was born a baseball fan and a baseball fan I [am] fated to remain.” So, indeed, am I. Until next year then . . . and the first sign of spring.

Saturday, October 27, 2012

A Substantial Human Being: George McGovern 1922 - 2012

The highest patriotism is not a blind acceptance of official policy, but a love of one's country deep enough to call her to a higher standard. – George S. McGovern
I was thirteen years old in 1972 when George McGovern ran for president and lost in a landslide to Richard Nixon. Although too young to vote, I remember vividly that election, the moral clarity of the choices facing the country and the volatility of the times in which we lived. The contrast between McGovern, the plain spoken son of a Methodist minister from the Great Plains who passionately opposed an unjust war and sought to make the United States a more inclusive, fair and decent nation, and the dark, brooding, paranoid Tricky Dick, was stark and readily apparent.

Robert Kennedy said that George McGovern was “the most decent man in the Senate.” The New Yorker described McGovern as “a calm, quiet, friendly, open, unself-conscious man” who “projects an air of old-fashioned integrity and decency.” A war hero who became an advocate for peace; a child of the Great Depression who understood how good, hardworking people sometimes need a helping hand, he was a rare politician, a kind and honest man who spoke truth to power. McGovern is no longer with us, and America has lost a good friend and a needed voice.

He believed America could do better. He did not understand why the United States, the richest, most blessed nation on earth, tolerated high levels of unemployment, failing schools, hungry children, and poverty in our inner cities, on Indian reservations, and in rural America. Throughout his political and post-political life, he urged policies of peace and compassion. In his campaign for President, he called for an immediate withdrawal from Vietnam, a national commitment to full employment, a guaranteed minimum income for the poor, amnesty for draft dodgers, diplomatic recognition of Cuba and China, and an end to corporate welfare. It may not have been smart politics, but he appealed always to America’s sense of decency and to the better instincts and traditions of U.S. history. And on most issues, history and time has proven him correct.

He wanted to end the war in Vietnam, not because he was a pacifist – he piloted a B-24 Liberator in World War II and flew 35 bombing missions over Nazi-occupied Europe, earning a Distinguished Flying Cross – but because he was sickened by American boys being maimed and killed by the thousands in support of a corrupt regime and an unjust war. “I’m fed up to the ears with old men dreaming up wars for young men to die in,” he said. McGovern had seen enough death and destruction as a member of the Greatest Generation to know that war should always be a last resort. It required no courage to advocate war from the Senate floor, he argued, or to send American boys to die from the safe confines of the Pentagon.

In September 1963, McGovern became the first U.S. Senator to publicly oppose America’s growing military commitment in Southeast Asia. “The current dilemma in Vietnam,” he said, “is a clear demonstration of the limitations of military power. . . . a policy of moral debacle and political defeat.” It was not a popular stance at the time and it upset his friends, the Kennedys. But he did not concern himself with polls or popular sentiment. He did and said what he believed was right.

Nine years later, during a speech at Wheaton College in Illinois, a distinctively Christian college, McGovern challenged the students to consider whether, consistent with the teachings of their religion, they prayed not only for American troops who were fighting and dying in a far off land, but also for the millions of Vietnamese whose homes were being destroyed and lives ended by U.S. bombs. Troubled by indifference to the suffering of others, he urged Americans to understand the larger consequences of war and to “change those things in our character which turned us astray, away from the truth that the people of Vietnam are, like us, children of God.”

Speaking in Miami at the Democratic convention in 1972, in a speech most Americans never heard because it was given at 2:00 a.m. (leave it to the Democrats), McGovern gave an impassioned promise to end the war within 90 days:

In 1968 many Americans thought they were voting to bring our sons home from Vietnam in peace, and since then 20,000 of our sons have come home in coffins. I have no secret plan for peace. I have a public plan. And as one whose heart has ached for the past ten years over the agony of Vietnam, I will halt a senseless bombing of Indochina on Inaugural Day. There will be no more Asian children running ablaze from bombed-out schools. There will be no more talk of bombing the dikes or the cities of the North. And . . . every American soldier and every American prisoner will be out of the jungle and out of their cells and then home in America where they belong. And then let us resolve that never again will we send the precious young blood of this country to die trying to prop up a corrupt military dictatorship abroad.

A wise and educated man, McGovern had attended seminary and studied for the ministry before earning a Ph.D. from Northwestern University in American history. His greatest concerns, war and poverty, were a direct influence of his Christian faith. A history teacher before entering politics in 1957, he was perhaps too honest for his own good, too willing to say what he believed and to pursue causes he felt were the moral imperatives of a great nation. He was not necessarily a smart politician. “Ever since I was a young boy, I wanted to run for President in the worst possible way,” he said in 1973, “and I did.” By the early seventies, he was deemed too liberal, a naïve idealist, too tolerant of the countercultural instincts and social movements then sweeping across the land. “You know,” he acknowledged later, “sometimes, when they say you’re ahead of your time, it’s just a polite way of saying you have a real bad sense of timing.”

Although remembered today mostly for his crushing presidential defeat, McGovern devoted most of his life to fighting hunger and poverty. In 1960, he conceived the idea of the Food for Peace program, which extended credit to poor countries to buy surplus U.S. crops. Appointed by President John F. Kennedy as its first director in 1961, Food for Peace helped feed 10 million people in its first year and operated in a dozen countries. McGovern also was instrumental in creating the United Nations World Food Program, a humanitarian agency that provides food assistance to hundreds of millions of poor and hungry people around the world, including victims of war and natural disasters. As a Senator he worked with Democrats and moderate Republicans to expand school lunch and nutrition programs, food stamps and other anti-poverty programs.

“It is in our self-interest to end hunger,” he wrote in 1998. “After all, we live in one world. Rich and poor alike, we breathe the same air; we share a global economy. . . . The chaos associated with political instability rooted in poverty and desperation is rarely contained within a single country.”

The history books do not often treat losers kindly. After his humiliating defeat in the 1972 election, McGovern became the brunt of jokes on late-night talk shows, a symbol of American defeatism on the right and of naïve idealism (and bad politics) on the left. But as Chris Hedges noted in a tribute to McGovern, “[T]hose who write history do not take into account the moral or the good, what is right or what is wrong, what endures and what does not.” I hope history treats McGovern kindly. As a lifelong teacher, public servant, and author, he never became a wealthy man. He instead sought to make the world a better, more decent place.

He is at peace now, forever resting while America continues to find its way in the world. His greatest legacy will be the decency of his politics, the kindness of his being, and the redeeming quality of his words. Shortly before he lost to Nixon, while campaigning in New York City, McGovern ordered a chopped-liver sandwich at Dubrow’s Cafeteria in the Garment District. As recounted in The New Yorker, McGovern had just finished his sandwich when someone in the background shouted, “Hey, McGovern, you’re a mensch!” McGovern turned to his aide. “Abrams,” he said, “what is a mensch?” Abrams replied, “It’s good, Senator. It means you’re a substantial human being.”

A substantial human being. A mensch. America needs more people like McGovern, people of his character and integrity, moral simplicity and honest speech. Perhaps his spirit will help us achieve his prayer for America, the concluding words of his nominating speech in 1972: “May God grant each one of us the wisdom to cherish this good land and to meet the great challenge that beckons us home.” We’ll miss you George.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Strat-O-Matic Memories: The Football Years

Okay, so it wasn’t quite like that. But since what I am about to discuss involves a group of knucklehead teenage males obsessed with a football board game played with dice and statistically-based player cards, I thought a photograph that depicted “fantasy football” could at least gain your attention. After all, even Ehlers on Everything is not beyond the shameless exploitation of sex to increase readership. In reality, Strat-O-Matic Pro Football, which helped define and influence the autumns of my youth, involved a geek-like devotion to statistics, strategy, and play calling; more fact than fantasy.

Having discovered Strat-O-Matic Baseball and its statistical realism a year earlier, my brother Steve and I decided to give the football version a try following the 1970 NFL season. Hal Richman and the Strat-O-Matic Game Company came out with the first edition of the football game in 1968, following the NFL season that featured Bart Starr and the Green Bay Packers as Super Bowl champions. My interest in pro football developed a year or so later, when Joe Namath and the New York Jets upset Johnny Unitas and the Baltimore Colts in the 1969 Super Bowl. Unlike Strat-O-Matic Baseball, which I played alone, the football version involved head-to-head matchups between testosterone-driven teenagers whose pride and emotional well-being depended on winning a game that was determined in part by the luck of a dice roll.

Intrigued by the notion of friendly competition, Steve and I recruited three of our best friends from the neighborhood and formed a five-team league. Mark Erson, a Lutheran minister’s son from across the street whose family hailed from New York, picked the Vikings, while his older brother Tim chose the New York Giants. Mike Dennehy, my lifelong friend who loved Detroit teams for reasons possibly less rational than my love of St. Louis teams, coached the Detroit Lions. I naturally picked the St. Louis football Cardinals that first season, while Steve chose the Philadelphia Eagles. In the first year of play, we each coached just one team, though in subsequent years we expanded to three teams each. After the first season, Mark and Tim would drop out and we would be joined by Joe Sbarra, the oldest of five siblings from a rambunctious, sports-crazed family up the street, and Phil Zirkle, another resident of our block, whose family originated from Baltimore. Phil reminded me of our dog Peppy, a bit moody and surly around the edges, but whose bark was worse than his bite.

The games were intense, the desire to win palpable. I recall more than a few closed-door pep talks to a stack of player cards before the scheduled kickoffs as the “coaches” defined offensive and defensive strategies and anticipated how to out-maneuver the opponent. I know most of you reading this cannot likely relate. But for those who ever played Strat-O-Matic Football, there exists a mutual understanding from shared experiences, when bonds and friendships are formed. “Friendship,” wrote C.S. Lewis, “is born at that moment when one person says to another: ‘What! You too? I thought I was the only one.’”

As with all Strat-O-Matic games, the statistical realism of the football version is unmatched, as each player and team performs consistent with real-life abilities. But it was the head-to-head competition in the football version that made playing Strat-O-Matic Football such a uniquely intense experience. As Hal Richman has said, “Head-to-head, Strat-O-Matic Football is the best sports game ever invented.” We engaged in a battle of wits, constantly trying to outguess the other side. After a close game, the winner was elated, the loser emotionally spent. This profound desire to win undoubtedly contributed to the creative assortment of profanities frequently uttered on the sidelines during each game. It was not unheard of for occasional inanimate objects to be thrown. Visitors entered the room of play at their own risk. Parents did their best to ignore us, and we wisely played most games in the basement, protected by distance and built-in concrete sound barriers, but every so often an adult would yell, “Settle down!” or “Watch your language!” usually to little effect.

Similar to Strat-O-Matic Baseball (see Strat-O-Matic Memories: The Baseball Years), the outcome of each play was determined by a roll of the dice – one white and two red. The white die determined whether to look on the offensive cards (1, 2, 3) or defensive cards (4, 5, 6), while the red die (totaling between 2 and 12) determined where in that column to look. The offense could choose to run (linebuck, off-tackle, or end run) or pass (flat pass, short pass, and long pass), directing each play to a particular running back or receiver. Some running backs, like O.J. Simpson (my favorite player before I discovered he was a homicidal maniac), was particularly dangerous on the end run and off tackle, while fullbacks like Larry Csonka were solid and almost unstoppable on inside runs. Fumbles and interceptions were always a concern, and you learned to minimize the risks where possible. On passing plays, the flat pass was the easiest to complete but often yielded short yardage. A short pass was designed to gain at least ten or more yards, but you needed a really good quarterback to complete a high percentage of these passes without getting sacked or throwing an interception. And the deep route, or long pass, involved substantial risks (more interceptions and sacks), but offered potentially great rewards (long gains and touchdowns).

Coaching and play calling was particularly important in the football version because the outcome of each play was greatly affected by whether the defensive team “guessed” right or wrong in defending against the run or pass. As the offensive player cards were divided between “right” and “wrong” columns, guessing correctly on defense could make the difference between stopping the offense or giving up substantial yardage. The defensive coach could also key on a particular running back or double team a receiver. A successful double team could shut down a team’s offense and unsettle the opposing team’s coach, but if you guessed wrong, you risked giving up a big play.

To protect the integrity of the play calling, we cut out the ends of shoe boxes, which when placed upside down formed an enclosed shelter that shielded the play-calling cards on each side of the game board. The offensive coach secretly chose a play – say, short pass-flanker – by placing a penny over the markers for “short pass” and “flanker”. Meanwhile, the defensive coach placed a penny over the marker depicting either “run” or “pass”. If he was particularly daring, he might also double team or key on a running back or receiver (but keying the wrong player automatically resulted in a “wrong” defensive formation). When the offensive coach announced the play, the defensive coach would respond “right”, “wrong”, or “keyed”. Although we mostly operated under an honor system, there were times when the defensive coach guessed right several plays in a row and the offensive coach would demand proof. The defensive coach would then have to reveal the placement of his penny by lifting the shoe box shelter. Sadly, even in these pre-Watergate days of American innocence, an opponent was occasionally caught with the penny lingering somewhere in-between the run and pass markers. Richard Nixon’s lament, “I am not a crook,” fell on deaf ears. Tell it to the judge. At such times, bad feelings ensued and proof was thereafter demanded after every play, restoring truth and justice to the American gridiron.

“Competition brings out the best in products and the worst in people.” So said David Sarnoff, founder of the RCA Corporation. Never was this more so than in our Strat-O-Matic Football league, where displays of poor character and unhinged emotional breakdowns were common occurrences. You see, however realistic Strat-O-Matic board games are – and the statistical realism is unmatched with each team playing to its abilities over the course of fourteen or sixteen games – the outcome of each play, each field goal attempt, each pass or run, is still determined in the end by luck and a roll of the dice.

Thus, there was the time when Mike’s Detroit Lions lost to my Kansas City Chiefs on a last second field goal. Although these final points occurred as the result of clever play calling that put my team within field goal range with fifteen seconds left on the clock, followed by a skillful roll of the dice, Mike failed to see it that way. As I quietly celebrated a 40-yard kick by Jan Stenerud and waited for the customary handshake and “good game” exchange, Mike slammed his fist and overturned the card table. Player cards and dice immediately became airborne as the game board landed on my lap. Mike stormed up the stairs and out of the basement as I gently lifted the card table from my thighs and picked up the scattered dice and player cards from the basement floor. As Mike reached the top of the basement steps, I seem to recall that his last remarks involved references to “luck” and the son of a female canine.

Years later, when Mike went off to Assumption College in Worcester, Massachusetts, he and a group of classmates formed their own Strat-O-Matic Football league.  Following one particularly frustrating loss, Mike is reported to have tossed a copy of The Lives of Saints through his dorm window.  A few minutes later, his roommate, who was nearly struck by the flying book while returning from the library, entered the room, looked at the disheveled state of affairs and the shattered glass and said, "I guess Mike lost."  Mike now makes his living as a guidance counselor and coach of the women’s softball team at a public high school in New Jersey, molding the hearts and minds of our nation’s youth.

Then there was the time Roy Shivers, my prize halfback for the Cardinals who averaged 4.7 yards per carry, fumbled the ball, not once but twice, while inside the opposing team’s ten yard line, each time resulting in a stomach churning turnover. After the second fumble I may have experienced a temporary blackout. In the words of Jimmy Hoffa before a Senate Rackets Committee hearing, “My memory fails to recall my recollection.” A string of profanities and end-of-the-world prophecies were likely exclaimed. It is possible that an old wooden chair was broken after an unfortunate collision with the basement floor (sorry Dad, it was me after all) and, much to my regret, Shivers’ player card was crumpled beyond recognition. Later in the game, realizing I still needed Shivers in the backfield, I sheepishly picked him up off the floor, un-crumpled his card, and attempted to iron out his wrinkles. He remained a wounded warrior the rest of the season.

Rumor has it that Phil once kicked a hole in the kitchen wall of the Sbarra residence following the second of two blocked punts by Joe’s Green Bay Packers. I am told that the Sbarra-version of Lambeau Field was thereafter moved to an undisclosed location. A few years later, Phil was hired as a security guard, responsible for protecting property. Fortunately, his background check failed to disclose his past act of vandalism and expulsion from the Sbarra household.

I would like to tell you that playing Strat-O-Matic football brought with it a certain stature in life, a series of lessons that built character and developed a sense of manhood. While slightly older and braver young men went off to war and fought valiantly in the jungles of Vietnam, the five of us battled over a game board, player cards, and the statistical probabilities of dice rolls. It was a test of wills between an eclectic group of neighborhood friends in central New Jersey, each seeking bragging rights in what seemed at the time a very important matter.

With the passing of time comes perspective. “There are no days more full, than those we go back to,” wrote Colum McCann. There are days still when I long for the simple joys of playing a game with impractical seriousness. I have traveled far from the zany days of my youth, when life’s successes and failures were measured in part by a football board game, player cards, and a roll of the dice. It seems silly now, but I treasure the memories. Whenever I speak with or visit my former Strat football opponents, we inevitably re-live the controversial, funny, and heart wrenching moments of past games. I am forever grateful to Strat-O-Matic for allowing me to have been irrational and passionate about something so insignificant, yet which seemed at the time so momentous. “What was our life like?” ponders Richard Ford in The Sportswriter. “I almost don’t remember now. Though I remember it, the space of time it occupied. And I remember it fondly.”

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

An American President: The Case for Obama 2012

Barack Obama knows the American Dream because he’s lived it . . . and he wants everyone in this country to have that same opportunity, no matter who we are, or where we’re from, or what we look like, or who we love. And he believes that when you’ve worked hard, and done well, and walked through that doorway of opportunity . . . you do not slam it shut behind you . . . you reach back, and you give other folks the same chances that helped you succeed. – Michelle Obama, September 4, 2012

For the past four years, I have closely followed the presidency of Barack Obama. I embraced  Obama’s candidacy in the early stages of the Democratic primaries in late 2007, spent many weekends canvassing local neighborhoods and knocking on doors to get out the vote in the summer and fall of 2008, and celebrated his election and inauguration in January 2009. I supported Obama then, despite his relative youth and inexperience, because I saw a man of character, vision and common sense; a man who remains cool under pressure and looks at the long term effects of policy, who exercises good judgment. Obama the man impressed me as uniquely capable of uniting this country at a time when our political and social fabric had been torn asunder by eight years of go-it-alone unilateralism in foreign policy and a survival-of-the-fittest mentality in economic policy.

Four years ago, Obama was the only viable candidate committed to ending the tragically flawed War in Iraq and refocusing our efforts in Afghanistan; jumpstarting the hunt for Osama bin-Laden and restoring America’s reputation abroad; and addressing America’s health care crisis while working to restore the American economy in a fair and sensible manner.

From the moment Obama was sworn in as president on January 20, 2009, he has been attacked from the right as an enemy of free enterprise and criticized from the left for coddling Wall Street and caving to conservative demands. I have not agreed with everything Obama has done as president  – more on that later – but I have not forgotten the enormity of the burdens he inherited and the incredible political obstructionism he has confronted along the way. A fair assessment of Obama’s record suggests he has delivered on his key promises and put the country on the right track. Is he perfect? Of course not. Are we exactly where we would like to be? No. But the Republican alternative to Obama in this election is a spineless man with no core beliefs, who as far as I can discern would have us revert to the very policies that resulted in economic calamity, tragic warfare, massive deficits, the highest degree of inequality since the 1920’s, and a damaged American psyche. I’ll stick with the guy we have.

The Economy. When President Obama took office, the world financial system was on the brink of collapse and the American economy was experiencing its worst decline since the Great Depression. The United States was losing 750,000 jobs per month and the GDP was declining at a rate of nearly 9 percent. Before Obama placed his hand on the bible, unemployment and debt were soaring at record levels and the economy was in free fall. While it is appropriate to ask if we are better off today than four years ago, one cannot fairly judge the performance of the U.S. economy under President Obama without acknowledging the terrible conditions he inherited. The declining economic indicators of his first year were out of his control. A fair assessment must allow for the time needed to implement new policies. Economies are always slow to shift course, especially following a collapse of world financial markets.

It is irrelevant whether and to what extent the policies of President Bush are properly blamed for the sordid state of affairs Obama inherited. I personally do not believe any President has as much control over or responsibility for the economy as is popularly imagined; from the price of gas to the value of the dollar on international markets, presidential policy makers exert little control. I do blame President Bush for converting the budget surplus of 2001 into eight straight years of record deficits and a growing debt burden, for this was the obvious and fully expected result of two unfunded wars, a prescription drug plan not paid for, and large-scale, across-the-board tax cuts. But other aspects of the global financial crisis, the trade imbalances, and the worldwide recession were not the fault of President Bush any more than high gas prices are the fault of President Obama.

So, let’s simply acknowledge that President Obama was confronted with the worst economic crisis the country had faced in nearly 70 years. How did he respond? Obama did several things at once. He put a floor under the free fall and prevented a downward spiral that could have led to the Second Great Depression. He single-handedly saved the Big Three automakers from collapse, saving more than 1 million jobs in the process. He drove the passage of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, which provided much needed stimulus and prevented cuts to state governments that would have cost at least 300,000 education jobs and hundreds of thousands of police officers, firefighters, and other state and local government workers. He reappointed Ben Bernanke as head of the Federal Reserve, backing the Fed’s use of record-low interest rates to better enable bank lending and economic growth. And he put his administration’s full support behind the Targeted Asset Relief Program (TARP), first implemented by President Bush, which allowed the country’s major financial institutions to survive and prosper and world financial markets to stabilize.

By the beginning of 2010, as the stimulus took effect, the financial system had recovered (in the end, most of the TARP funds loaned out by the federal government were repaid), the auto industry had turned the corner and now competes fiercely and profitably on world markets, and monthly net job losses became monthly net job gains. Since then, the United States has added over 4.5 million private sector jobs and unemployment has declined from a peak of 10.2 percent in late 2009 to just over 8 percent now.

It is true that unemployment remains far too high and the economy has not grown as fast and as deep as everyone had hoped. I sided three years ago with economists such as Paul Krugman who argued that the stimulus was not large enough, that we needed a massive influx of government-created, New Deal-style jobs directed at putting people immediately to work, fixing and repairing the nation’s infrastructure, and sparking a faster economic recovery (see “The Lingering Great Recession: Jobs Needed”). President Obama took a more cautious, less Keynesian approach. The resulting job growth occurred in the private sector, offset partly by fewer government jobs. But neither Paul Krugman nor I had to deal with Republican intransigence and the rise of the Tea Party. Presidents must not only implement policy, they must deal with political reality. And there was simply no way the Obama administration could have pushed for more stimulus without sacrificing its ability to get things done on other fronts. That is the way Washington works and, while this president is less enamored of the political game than many of his predecessors (think Clinton, LBJ, FDR), he has demonstrated a masterful capacity to understand what can be achieved and what cannot.

It is a myth that Obama simply spent hundreds of billions of dollars in wasteful government expenditures. In fact, one-third of stimulus “expenditures” were in the form of middle class tax cuts, which affected 95% of all taxpayers. Another third was in restoring cuts to state and local governments to prevent massive layoffs of teachers, police officers, firefighters and other essential government workers. The actual spending that did occur was properly targeted on re-building the nation’s infrastructure – roads, bridges, tunnels, and schools – which have been badly neglected and are in great need of fixing; on education; and on an historic commitment to clean energy. And by expanding America’s social safety net, Obama ensured that the poor and the unemployed would be taken care of while investments were made in low-income housing, food stamps, and child care.

Everyone agrees that the resulting recovery has been slower than desired, the deepness of the worldwide recession more profound than we were led to believe at the end of 2008. But once the stimulus, the bailouts, and the looser monetary policies of the Fed went into effect, we went from a net loss of 750,000 jobs per month to net gains of nearly 150,000 jobs per month in 2010 and 2011. Economic growth is slower than we would like, but it is a substantial improvement over where we were and shows the economy is moving in the right direction. Are we better off than four years ago? Simply put, yes. According to a study of economists at Princeton University and Moody’s Analytics, Obama’s stimulus package alone created over 2.7 million jobs, and without the stimulus, bailouts, and lower interest rates, unemployment would have risen to 16.5 percent, more than double what it is today.

Reforming Health Care. With the Affordable Care Act, President Obama has achieved what no President before him was able to accomplish. Every progressive president in the 20th Century, from Theodore Roosevelt to Bill Clinton, tried and failed to enact a comprehensive national health plan. The failure to do so was among Harry Truman’s most bitter disappointments and nearly destroyed Clinton’s presidency in his first year. Despite vitriolic opposition from the right, what has come to be known as Obamacare is far more moderate than its critics claim. The much despised individual mandate, for example, was pioneered by the conservative Heritage Foundation and championed by Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney (until President Obama embraced the concept). Much to the disappointment of his liberal supporters, Obama quickly gave up on the public option in an attempt to appease conservatives. The foundation of the Affordable Care Act is a much expanded client base for private insurance and drug companies. Health-care exchanges, set to begin in 2014, are another conservative concept adopted by Obama’s health plan. Indeed, Obamacare is far to the right of Clinton’s 1993 proposal and very similar to proposals originally advocated by Richard Nixon in 1974 and Bob Dole in 1996.

While many innovative cost-saving measures are yet to take effect, in the last two years we have experienced the lowest increases in health care costs nationwide than at any time in the past decade. Although not the single-payer, universal system that is my preference, the Affordable Care Act has moved the country in a more compassionate and fiscally prudent direction. It expands coverage to 30 million people previously uninsured, prevents insurance companies from denying coverage to those with preexisting conditions, expands Medicaid and strengthens Medicare, allows parents to keep their children on family health plans until age 26, and disallows insurance companies from dropping patients after they become sick. The Affordable Care Act is a singular achievement in American history and makes the United States a kinder, more decent society.

Investing in Clean Energy. The nation’s first black president may also be our first green president. Obama has made an historic commitment to power America with clean, renewable energy and reduce our dependence on foreign oil and dirty coal. Under Obama, we have doubled our renewable energy capacity, from solar panels to wind turbines, producing enough clean energy to power all five boroughs of New York City. Part of this success is due to the stimulus bill, which targeted $94 billion for unprecedented investments in projects from weatherizing federal buildings to building solar thermal plants in the Mojave. Half of the investment comes from tax incentives and loan guarantees that require matching private sector funds and investments. The administration has adopted new fuel efficiency standards that require automakers to increase the average, unadjusted fuel-economy rating of their vehicles to 54.5 miles per gallon by 2025, more than double the efficiency of today’s cars. This will conserve nearly two billion barrels of oil annually and reduce carbon emissions by 21 percent. And by executive order, federal agencies must now reduce their carbon pollution by 28 percent over the next ten years, enough to eliminate 101 million metric tons of carbon from the atmosphere, equivalent to the climate-heating pollution of several small countries.

Protecting Consumers and Students. Obama has overseen the most sweeping reforms of Wall Street since the Great Depression, fashioning rules under the Dodd-Frank legislation that prevent banks from using consumers’ money to invest in high-risk financial instruments. He established the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau to protect consumers from unethical lending and credit practices. Through the Credit Card Act, the major credit card companies must now include a box on your statement that provides how long it will take to pay off your debt by making only the minimum payment, and they cannot so easily lure college kids into mountains of debt by providing easy credit.

Obama has enacted stricter and more effective food safety laws. And he reformed the federal student loan program by lowering the cost of student loans and allowing students to repay them over 20 years as a low, fixed percentage of their incomes. As explained by President Clinton in Charlotte, this means “no one will ever have to drop-out of college for fear they can’t repay their debt. And it means that if someone wants to take a job with a modest income, a teacher, a police officer, if they want to be a small-town doctor in a little rural area, they won’t have to turn those jobs down because they don’t pay enough to repay their debt.”

Civil Rights and Liberties. The most significant and lingering civil rights issues at the start of Obama’s presidency were (1) the right of gays and lesbians to serve openly in the military and (2) to enter into state-sanctioned marriage with someone of their choosing, a constitutional right deemed sacred by all other Americans. To his credit, the president secured the consent of the top military brass in repealing “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” a humiliating policy that forced gay service members to lead dishonest lives in order to serve their country. And although he had previously opposed same-sex marriage, he has since publicly expressed support for the right of all Americans, gay or straight, to marry. He has extended benefits to same-sex partners of federal employees, changed housing rules to disallow discrimination in public housing on the basis of gender and sexual orientation, issued a Presidential Memorandum reaffirming the rights of gay couples to make medical decisions for each other, and pushed for the United Nations to adopt a policy supporting gay rights worldwide.

Foreign Policy and Peace. Mitt Romney is not anxious to engage President Obama in a foreign policy debate, because by any reasonable measure, Obama’s record in this area is stellar. As promised, he ended the War in Iraq and oversaw the efficient withdrawal of American troops, quietly putting this tragic and flawed war behind us. He immediately refocused American military and intelligence efforts to capture and kill Osama bin Laden and, when the moment of decision came, overruled the Secretary of State and Vice President in ordering the riskiest alternative before him, the raid in Abbottabad, Pakistan, that killed America’s number one global enemy and produced a large cache of new intelligence against al Qaeda. Republicans have sought to ridicule Obama for taking any credit, but as Andrew Sullivan has noted, “If George Bush had taken out bin Laden, wiped out al Qaeda’s leadership, and gathered a treasure trove of real intelligence by a daring raid, he’d be on Mount Rushmore by now. But where Bush talked tough and acted counterproductively, Obama has simply, quietly, relentlessly decimated our real enemies. . . .”

In Libya, Obama ordered the intervention that ousted Gadhafi and protected Western oil supplies at minimal financial cost and no U.S. casualties. He did not act unilaterally, but respectfully and appropriately involved our European and NATO allies, an approach that also has served us well in confronting Iran. Indeed, a combination of strict sanctions, diplomacy, and internationally coordinated pressure on Iran has proven far more effective than grandiose threats of war.

Leading foreign policy conservatives, including Robert Kagan, a national security adviser to John McCain, has strongly praised Obama’s Asia policy. Obama has made China a key strategic priority, adding to U.S. military presence in the Pacific while challenging China on human rights, trade, and economic espionage. He also has taken significant steps to reduce the threat of nuclear war by negotiating further reductions in America’s and Russia’s nuclear arsenals.

I was disappointed in Obama’s decision not to close the detention facilities at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and I have taken issue with the legality and collateral consequences of Obama’s increased use of drone missile strikes in Pakistan and Yemen. I continue to believe that drone strikes create more terrorists than they kill and display an American arrogance that reflects poorly on American values in the Muslim world. But admittedly I am more willing to trust Obama’s instincts and decisions on these highly sensitive, secretive matters, because Obama’s words and deeds suggest he is at least sensitive to the long-term effects of American military might. Obama signed a detailed Executive Order banning torture and the “enhanced interrogation” techniques that undermined the rule of law and degraded America’s standing in the world and he has closed a number of secret detention facilities. In short, Obama acts like a Commander-in-Chief concerned for America’s long-term interests.

The Alternative. If I had lingering doubts about an Obama second term, and I do not, they would be erased by a look at the alternative. Mitt Romney is a poor second choice not because he is a bad person. I do not doubt that Mr. Romney is a relatively nice man. Like the President, he has a beautiful family and appears to have been a good father and faithful husband. But on matters of policy, on where he stands on fundamental values, on where his heart rests, I simply haven’t a clue. In Massachusetts, Romney was a moderate, pro-choice Governor who openly supported gay rights and designed a health care plan upon which the Affordable Care Act was modeled. Only six years ago, he was a strong proponent of the individual mandate, which he knew then was essential to the state’s ability to provide and pay for universal coverage. Romney has since reversed his position 180 degrees on these and so many other issues that I do not know who Mitt Romney is or what he would do if elected. To obtain his party’s nomination, Romney has proved willing to say anything. He is beholden to the right-wing extremists of his party, although I cannot help but question whether he believes everything he says, or how long it will be until he says something different. In Romney, I do not see a man with any core principles.

A Matter of Character. No president or man is perfect. Obama is no exception. He has made his share of mistakes. There is much unfinished business. The economy continues to grow at too slow a pace. Unemployment remains too high. The deficits must eventually be brought under control or the federal budget will be consumed by interest on the debt, making it more difficult for the government to do the very things liberals and progressives care most about. But I continue to believe in this president and I remain confident in America knowing he is in the White House. He has conducted himself with grace and calm in very trying times. He has managed crises and conflicts with intelligence and dignity. I trust him to do all he can to keep our troops from harm’s way while protecting the freedoms we most cherish. He believes, like I do, in a country that values fairness and productivity, safety and liberty, individual responsibility and community. I love what Obama said in Charlotte during his acceptance speech, because it summarizes precisely how I understand the essence of the American ideal:
We insist on personal responsibility, and we celebrate individual initiative. We’re not entitled to success. We have to earn it. We honor the strivers, the dreamers, the risk-takers, the entrepreneurs who have always been the driving force behind our free enterprise system, the greatest engine of growth and prosperity that the world [has] ever known.

But we also believe in something called citizenship . . . a word at the very heart of our founding, a word at the very essence of our democracy, the idea that this country only works when we accept certain obligations to one another and to future generations. . . .

We don’t think the government can solve all of our problems, but we don’t think the government is the source of all of our problems. . . . As citizens, we understand that America is not about what can be done for us. It’s about what can be done by us, together – through the hard and frustrating but necessary work of self-government.
It makes no sense to reverse course now. I believe too much in this country to not give this president an opportunity to finish the work he set out to do. I continue to believe that no one is better equipped to bridge the gap between red America and blue America than President Obama. He is not a Democratic president. He is an American president. And should remain so for four more years.