We Are the People

Recently I saw John Mellencamp in concert. Man, that was two and a half hours of great music and fun. It reminded me what great songs he’s made and continues to make. So many of his songs remind me of what’s best in America. Others call attention to the challenges we have as Americans.

This Fourth of July, think about what we have in common. No matter how far we’ve got to go to forming that more perfect union, we’ve come a long way. And this particular song reminds me that we are in it together. None of us get off scot free. If we don’t pull together, we’ll be broken. It’s like Ben Franklin said, “We must, indeed, all hang together or, most assuredly, we shall all hang separately.”

Lately we’ve been hanging separately. And that’s a darn shame. Because We Are The People. And if things are falling apart, it’s our fault.

To celebrate that hanging together thing on this two-hundred-and forty-third Fourth of July Independence Day, here”s John Mellencamp’s “We Are The People”:

Let’s look around us and be thankful for our neighbors. The more different they are from us the better. After all, America has a big heart. Despite what others think of her.

Don’t believe it. Just tell those guys that hit Normandy Beach on June 6, 1944. Don’t believe it. Just tell those folks who Americans fed with the Marshall Plan after World War II. Don’t believe it. Just tell it to all those folks who have benefitted from Peace Corps volunteers, digging wells, teaching children. Don’t believe it. Just ask those Berliners who were cut off from the world in 1948 and 1949.

Look around you and see the beauty of this country and say thank you for all we have as Americans. And remember We Are The People. We’ve got better days ahead of us if we hang together. Otherwise….

 

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Mr. Ives’ Christmas

Mr. Ives’ Christmas By Oscar Hijuelos Harper/Collins, 1995.

Oscar Hijuelos’ Mr. Ives’ Christmas is not just a good novel. It is a meditation on grief. It is also a meditation on faith and weathering the worst of storms a human being can weather. The loss of a beloved child.

And the book is also about commitment, love, family and friends with a little Charles Dickens thrown in. And everywhere there is Hijuelos’ love affair with New York City, its sights and sounds and smells, and its neighborhoods.

A good man, Edward Ives, loses his son, Robert, to a cold blooded murder. Robert is standing in front of a church, talking to some friends. He’s there for choir practice.

A thirteen-year-old kid walks by Robert. He doesn’t like the look on Robert’s face. In an instant, he turns, pulls a gun, and fires bullets into Robert’s body. Robert drops onto the sidewalk. He is dead.

Robert wasn’t just any kid. He was special. He was one of those kids who did everything right. Likeable to everybody he met. Never an unkind word for anybody. Never gave his parents trouble. Close to both of his parents and his sister. But especially close to his father. The next year he was going to go off to seminary to become a priest. That was Robert. And it doesn’t help that his death came close to Christmas.

Annie, his mother, and Caroline, his sister, are devastated. But his father is the most devastated of all. At one point, Ives reflects: “You know what it was like? It was like drowning.” Ive’s grief is a river of sadness, so sad it fills his entire life. As his wife, Annie, puts it, “Robert’s death had become the defining event of his middle-aged life.”

Ives never stops grieving. Annie and Caroline find a way to go on with their lives and live with the grief without it destroying them. But not Ives. He cannot find any joy in life anymore. It’s almost like he quit breathing at the moment he heard the horrible news.

On the outside, his acts are of a saintly man, a compassionate man, showing care for those around him. Even for the murderer of his son. On the inside, he is wounded deeply, walking around in a purgatory that is as much hell as it is life. A purgatory he cannot escape no matter how good he is. His only thought day after day, night after night, is the loss of his son. His grief is immense.

This is not a novel written from the head. This is a novel written from the heart. With detail upon detail, Oscar Hijuelos has mustered all his tremendous talent to breathe life into the Mr. Ives of the title. In so doing, it’s possible to believe that Hijuelos suffers with Mr. Ives.

Ives with his memories of his beloved son finds himself in a lifetime of solitary confinement which he cannot escape. He cannot bring himself to love again, even his wife and his daughter.

Not once does he ask, “What would Robert want?”

So Mr. Ives grows into a bitter man despite everything he tries.

On that day the kid murdered Robert, he had a second victim. Mr. Ives. Robert’s death was instant. Edward Ives’ is long and slow and torturous. Mr. Ives is a good man, but  goodness is not enough to heal all the grief that he carries.

In the end, Mr. Ives emerges from a long dark night. For Mr. Ives, the sunrise comes from a place he least expected.

At the end, I realized that this is Osar Hijuelos homage to the great Charles Dickens. It seems like Dickens is hovering above every page of this novel, encouraging Hijuelos to write on and smiling when the writer had completed the journey of his story. As I finished the novel, I began to think that Edward Ives had a lot of Bob Cratchit in him.

In 248 pages, Hijuelos has packed the life of one man and his family, his faith and his love affair with life, and then the great tragedy. When the novel is over, I was left with a love for Ives and Annie, Robert and Caroline, Ramirez and Carmen and their son Pablo. I will miss them. But Hijuelos has left me the opportunity to dig into their lives again. All I have to do is open the pages of Mr. Ives’ Christmas.

My Old Man, Santa Claus

My old man was a hoot. Everybody in the neighborhood said, “Tom Pickering does have one heck of an imagination.” The thing was that his inventions seldom worked. His imagination seemed to be larger than his abilities.

There was the bicycle he believed would fly. He believed it so much that he rode it off the roof of our two story house. All the neighborhood saw it and there were those who shouted, “It’s a bird. It’s a plane.” When my Dad and the bike crashed through our neighbor’s first floor window, they were sure it wasn’t Superman.  Dad landed on Mr. Adams as he was trying to get some shut eye after a long night’s work. Needless to say Mr. Adams was not pleased and neither was the bicycle.

But Dad was no quitter. He had just the right thing he thought would get him into the Inventor’s Hall of Fame. An underwater car. It was a Saturday afternoon when he drove the Chevy off the pier. Little did Dad know that the water was deep. Very deep. So deep in fact it could have made the Challenger Deep look like a sinkhole. Down, down, down the car went as its engine stalled, then stopped. It had putted its last putt.

It was then that Dad realized he had forgotten one essential piece of equipment if you want to travel underwater. He forgot oxygen tanks. Fortunately there were three scuba divers who followed Dad into the water. It took several minutes for them to make the jailbreak out of the car. It’s a good thing that Dad was a deep breather.

Then there was the time Dad went about saving Christmas. At least for my kid brother, Jimmy. It was the year I told him there was definitely no Santa Claus. The whole thing was made up.

At first, Jimmy didn’t take my word for it. Then several of the the kids in his school  confirmed my testimony. They too told him there was no Santa. Jimmy did the math. He added and subtracted, multiplied and divided. He was nowhere near having an answer how Santa and his reindeer made it to every house in every country in the world on Christmas Eve.

When Dad saw Jimmy with qualms of disappointment on his face, he knew he had to come up with a solution to the Santa Claus issue. He remembered way back when he was young. A similar thing had happened to him. Only it wasn’t a kid. It was Old Mr. Creepers next door. He wanted to make Halloween the biggest holiday of the year. There was only one way that was possible. He had to take down Santa Claus.

That year Santa missed Dad’s house. All because he doubted Santa. Now Dad was determined that was not to happen to his kid. His solution: he would appear on our roof as Santa, then slide down the chimney with a bag of goodies.

Now Dad had the heft of a Santa and he carried it with grace. Six weeks before Christmas Eve, he began the preparations for what he called “the Santa’s Caper.” He went down to the local Santa store and bought his fake beard and his fake hair and his suit, which was not fake. And he did not cut corners. Only the best for his little Jimmy.

When Mom got a clue to what Dad was up to, she asked, “You fool, how are you going to get down that chimney?”

“Oh, it will be a tight squeeze. But I have the perfect solution. Grease.”

Mom shook her head, knowing there was no changing his mind. “Just be careful and please don’t break the chimney.” But she gave him that worried look. With Dad, what would go wrong would go wrong. So much so that she had taken to calling him Murphy behind his back

Christmas Eve came. Jimmy and I were sent to bed early with a “Santa won’t come if you’re awake.”

Though we absolutely knew there was no Santa, still we were taking no chances. By ten p.m. we were in our beds, pretending we were zzz-ing off to Never Never Land. Despite our best efforts, we nodded off. Then we heard a noise on the roof.

It wasn’t a clatter we heard. It was more like a bomp. One thing was sure. Santa was making his rendezvous. It was a definite that he was on our roof. Clomp! Clomp! Clomp! went Santa’s boots.

We jumped out of bed and hurried to the window. No sleigh on the lawn. Rudolph must be on the roof. Along with Dasher and Dancer, Prancer and Vixen, Comet and Cupid, Donner and Blitzen. We just knew it.

But it was not Santa. It was Dad. And he had spotted his target. The chimney.

All dressed up in his Santa suit, he lugged his bag over to the chimney. He sat down on the chimney’s side. With the bag lifted over his head, he gave himself a push. As he shoved off, he heard a giant ripping sound. His red pants had caught on a nail. The nail tore not only his pants but his bright red Santa underpants with white Rudolphs on the bottom as well.

That night gravity did its mighty work. Down the chimney went Dad and his bag. Until he didn’t. Like a balloon blowing up, Dad filled up the chimney, then stopped half way down.

Mom took out her flashlight and pointed it up the chimney. What she saw made her throw herself onto the floor, laughing uncontrollably.

In all the history of Santas, this must have been the first time Santa found himself unable to reach the cookies and milk. The grease had not worked.

Jimmy and I rushed into the living room. “Where’s Santa,” we screamed in unison.

“Boys, go back to bed,” Mom said. “Otherwise Santa won’t come out of that chimney. And there’ll be no presents. Right, Santa?”

From the chimney came a muffled voice that was half Santa and half Dad.”Ho, ho, ho. Listen to your mother. Moms are always right.”

“Okay, Mom,” we said, disappointment in our voices.

We left the room and closed the door, but we were not about to go back to bed. We’d be kicked out of the All American Kid Society if we did. We took turns peeping through the door.

Somehow Dad squeezed himself almost to the floor of the chimney. His black boots were about three feet in the air. If you’ve never heard a man cry, you would have heard a man cry that night. “What was I thinking.”

“You weren’t, as usual,” Mom gave him one of her what-fers.

“Well, can you give me a hand?”

Mom grabbed onto Dad’s boots and gave them a tug. “Ouch,” the chimney said. The boots dropped onto Mom’s foot and her ouch joined the chimney’s.

“Do you still have those rockets you bought for the Fourth of July?” Mom asked.

“What are you going to do with them?”

“I’m going to stick them up your rear end and send you into the Great Beyond. Otherwise it will be the waste of a perfectly decent chimney. Why do you ask?”

“No.” The chimney was emphatic. “Absolutely not.”

“Do you have a better suggestion?”

For years afterward, my family called this horns of a dilemma The Horns of a Dilemma.

Behind the slightly open door, my brother turned to me. “Where’s Dad? He could get Santa free. He’s smart like that.”

I just didn’t have the heart to tell Jimmy where Dad was.

Then a thud. And not just any thud. It was The Thud.

Mom’s eyes and Jimmy’s eyes and my eyes shot to the ceiling and the footsteps. Could it be?

Of course, it was.

From above, we heard a deep bass voice. “Fool, get out of my way.”

Dad dropped to the chimney floor and crawled out, his suit all in tatters. Behind him were a pair of boots. They stepped over Dad and into the center of the living room. There was a glow about The Man. He wore a suit of the brightest red I’d ever seen. I swear the white beard shined.

Mom rushed over and grabbed the glass of milk and the plate of Oreos. She timidly handed them to The Man.

He looked at Mom and smiled and took the refreshments. He gulped them down, then headed for the work of the night. The Christmas tree.

Frozen in our places, the four of us watched. He set his bag on the floor, reached up and adjusted the star and several of the ornaments. Then he opened his bag. He looked over at Jimmy and nodded. “This one is for you.” He placed the large gift under the tree. “For believing.” Next came my gift, then Mom’s.

Finally he looked over at Dad. Tears were in The Man’s eyes. “Thanks for the help.” Out of the bag came a very small package. He placed it under the tree, giving it a bit of extra care as he did.

In a flash, he was back at the chimney and up on the roof. But he wasn’t done. Back down the chimney he came. Standing before us in all his glory, he said in that deep deep voice of his, “I forgot.” Then he sent us a “Ho! Ho! Ho!”

From our toes to the tippy tip top of our heads, our bodies filled with joy and love and peace and hope.

“And one final thing. Merry Christmas and a very good night.”

On the roof, we heard, “Peace on  earth and goodwill toward men.” Then he disappeared into the night, heading onward to fulfill the mission he has been on for centuries.

And now, from Uncle Bardie, Merry Christmas to one and all. May you and your loved ones have a wonderful holiday this year. And one final thing. As Tiny Tim said, “God bless us everyone.”

Near 500 words: The Sixties

The Sixties are a long time gone but lately I have been remembering. During the 1960s, it seemed like everywhere you turned, there were larger-than-life personalities. Not celebrities but people who moved mountains. Dr. King and Bobby Kennedy, Muhammad Ali and Joe Namath.

Every night we turned on the TV and there was Uncle Walter and Johnny Carson to guide us. Carol Burnett made us laugh our booties off. Alan Shepard and John Glenn flew into the outer reaches of space. John Kennedy inspired us to do better for our country and the First Lady showed us style. Popes John XXIII and Paul VI, Billy Graham and the Maharishi quenched our spiritual thirst. Even in the Soviet Union, there was Alexander Solzhenitsyn.

No matter what your political persuasion, there was someone for everyone. Gene McCarthy and Bobby Kennedy for the liberals, Barry Goldwater and William F. Buckley for the conservatives. And Che Guevara for the radicals.

Ralph Nader, Betty Friedan and Rachel Carson, Martin Luther King, Malcolm X and Cesar Chavez dreamed big dreams and shared them with the world. The times were changing. Utopia was just around the corner.

We landed a man on the moon and celebrated our freedom at Woodstock. Then the party came tumbling down with a thud at Altamonte.

By the end of the decade, our innocence was buried in the harsh reality that utopias always end in dystopia. Captain America was shot off his mototcycle. The Beatles broke up and Sgt Peppers disbanded his band. That day in April,1970, was more than the day the music died. It was the day our hearts were broken. It was the day the earth opened up and swallowed our hope.

All we were left with was Richard Nixon and Vietnam, and Superman was only a comic book and Batman a TV show. All we were left with was Kent State, OPEC, Watergate, stagflation and the Brady Bunch. The Seventies brought us plop back down to earth. It was like we had been dropped on our heads and we had a hangover like all get-out.

Then came Camp David and “the City Upon a Hill” of Ronald Reagan. The Berlin Wall came crashing down. For one brief moment, there was a Middle East Peace Accord. Yasser Arafat and Yitzhak Rabin shook hands. For one brief, shining moment, Camelot was shining again. Only to be brought back to our senses by Y2K and 9/11.

But we can never forget those bonfires of hope shining from the Decade That Was: the Peace Corps and Earth Day, Woodstock and Neil Armstrong walking on the moon. And we still dream of a better world. It’s just going to be a long time coming. As Jessie Jackson says, “Keep hope alive.”

Zona’s Choice

Zona worked in a jewelry store. In her long dresses and her long hair braided all the way to her feet, she had a soft way about her. Each customer she treated like they were the only person alive. When she was asked about this, how she managed to focus on that person, she said, “Meditation. I meditate for sixty minutes each day.”

Zona had worked in the shop for ten years. She was always the first there and the last to leave. The owner was amazed at her commitment. He had never seen another who had that kind of commitment to anything. It just wasn’t done.

After thirty years of marriage, the owner’s wife died. He loved her deeply but she left him no children. The two of them had wanted children, but, after ten years, they quit trying. It was the gods’ plan for them and they accepted it. Although begrudgingly.

After a year’s time after her death, Mr. Kelps, the owner, began to think about Zona. She too had lost her husband. She and Min had only been married a year. Then she had gone to work for Mr. Kelp to support herself. His wife had liked Zona.

One night, Mr. Kelp closed the shop early. He asked Zona into his office after the other three workers left. Looking across from his desk, he said, “Zona?” He smiled. He liked the sound of her name. “I have a request.”

Zona’s response was yes, she would be willing to work a sixth day.

“That’s not what I am going to ask. You work hard five days a week and that is enough.”

Zona listened, thinking maybe a raise. She was happy with her salary. It provided for all her needs. And she had enough left over to save for her old age.

Then he asked, “Zona, would you be my wife?”

Never in a thousand years had she suspected such a thing. Mr. Kelps could have any of a number of young women in the city he wanted. Their fathers would gladly agree. Why her? In all the ten years she had worked at the shop, she had not imagined marriage. Through the years, she had come to love the kind man she sat across from. But she thought it was the love of a sister she had for him.

He continued, “I have realized over the last year how much you mean to me. You are not just an employee. Of all those I know, you are the one I trust most. And how much affection I have for you. This past week, I realized that it is more than affection. It is love. I have fallen in love with you.”

Zona listened as she listened to each person who was speaking to her.

He continued, “Have no fear. If you say no, you will not have to worry about losing your work here. And I will never speak of this again. Only you and I will know. But if you say yes, I will be happier than the gods.”

“May I think about your request?” she asked. “I will give you an answer at the end of six days.”

“Of course,” Mr. Kelps said. “Take your time. I only want your happiness. And consult any one you need.” As he watched the woman leave, he knew his wife would have been pleased with his choice.

That night, Zona went home. She prepared and ate her dinner of rice and vegetables. Then she cleaned up and sat for her evening’s meditation. Sitting on the floor before her mandala, she meditated longer than usual. She turned to her husband’s ashes. “Min, what do you think? Is this what I should do?”

Anytime Zona had a question or just wanted to bear her soul to someone, she addressed her husband’s ashes as they sat in the urn by her mandala. Even if she did not have an answer, she always felt comforted that her Min was close by. This time she was very concerned. If she married Mr. Kelp, Min would no longer be the one she shared thoughts and concerns with. She was not sure she could live without Min in her life.

She crawled into her bed and pulled the large blanket over her body. And she cried. She had not cried this way since her husband’s funeral. After the funeral, she had wanted to end her days. But she held back. It was a great sin she would be doing. Her people believed that. No matter what happened. One did not take fate into one’s hands. One struggled and lived with their destiny. Was Mr. Kelp her destiny? Only Min and the gods could tell her.

For four nights, she sat before the mandala and Min’s ashes. She had spoken her mind and she waited on Min and the gods. Only they would present a way forward. If they were silent, that also was her answer. She would not marry her employer.

On the fifth night, Zona had a dream. She walked along a pathway. On each side of the path were lovely trees and the most beautiful flowers. The path was wide enough for three. On her right side walked Min. On her left was one of the gods. They held her hands and they walked for what must have been hours until they came to a gate. Min and the god let go of her hands. Min gently pushed her forward through the gate.

Zona did not hold back but she did not go forward willingly. That was her way. Min and the god knew that.

She went through the gate, then turned and saw that Min was giving her his blessing. He leaned through the gate and kissed her cheek. So did the god. Then they were gone.

Zona turned to see a garden filled with flowers. She had never smelled such fragrance from flowers before. Then a rooster outside crowed and she woke up. Tears filled her eyes and rolled down her cheeks.

She dressed the way she always did. She had her morning rice. Then she gathered up the urn and went to the temple.

A priest met the woman. She passed him the urn. Neither spoke a word. The priest knew what he was to do.

Zona left the temple. There wasn’t a smile or a frown on her face. There was only the peace she always wore.

The priest took the urn and scattered the ashes onto the fire lit for the gods. He said a prayer, then handed the urn to an assistant. Then he turned back to the fire and said, “Goodbye, Min. Your time on this earth is done.”

Min’s ashes gathered into what had once been Min and he flew away to join the gods.