Thoughts on a Sunday

Lay sermon delivered on June 27, 2010, at Westminster Presbyterian Church in Buffalo, NY

“’I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.’ And Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God.” ~ Exodus 3:6

“You will know them by their fruits.” ~ Matthew 7:16

When I learned that I would be giving the sermon today, I was excited. And then within a few days, I had a vivid dream. I was up here in this very pulpit, all ready to go. After looking out at the congregation, I looked down, only to discover that the papers I was holding were not a sermon, but a handful of cartoons from The New Yorker magazine.

Now, maybe my dream was telling me that I tend to take things too seriously and I need to lighten up. I’ve certainly heard this advice from many friends, not to mention my own daughter.

But in all honesty, I believe my dream was a clear reflection of a deeper hesitation, an ambivalence, about being here today. Yes, I was excited and honored. And I remain humbled and sincerely grateful to Reverend Yorty and the Worship Music & Arts Committee for inviting me to preach a second time. But with equal intensity, I’ve been reluctant about embracing this moment. I’m not sure why exactly. It hasn’t just been a sense of feeling ill-prepared to deliver a sermon, but a sense of feeling unworthy to deliver one. Especially on a day as important as this, when we gather not only to worship, but also to commission our Maine travelers.

My own faith journey has been a bumpy road, at best. It has taken me a long time to learn how to bow my head, for one thing, and I don’t just mean physically. When I was 10 years old, I wrote a letter to God and left it under my pillow at bedtime. The next morning, when I found it was still there, I was miffed. “See! He doesn’t exist.” God had failed my clever test. As a teenager, I was the least enthusiastic family member when Sunday morning rolled around. I still recall, with excruciating detail, the weekly battles with my mother over going to church. She wasn’t shy about yanking the covers as I lay in bed, and you can bet I wasn’t shy about raising my voice in bitter protest.

In the heat of our emotional exchanges, she would confidently say: “I don’t care what you say you don’t believe. God will never let you go.” It annoyed me to no end, to be going up against this woman who seemed so resolute. Yet deep down, I think I knew all along I was somehow never going to win the larger argument. It just took me 25 years to concede.

At the same time, this business of faith can get more complicated, not less, the more we talk about it. The more we try to pin it down, wrap it up neatly, the more elusive it can be. And maybe that’s just as it should be. God, after all, is not some genie we can capture in a bottle, and then let out when we want our next wish granted. God doesn’t belong to us; we belong to God. And God is far bigger than our human brains can imagine.

Moreover, faith is not just about figuring out what we believe, and how to proclaim it within the safe confines of a church. That’s only one part. Faith is also about living in the real world, being in tune with what feels right, and doing what we believe – even when our choice is unpopular. I also believe that faith is about carrying on with the task of listening, being kind and making the world a better place, even when we’re not quite sure if we believe anything at all.

In today’s Old Testament reading, Moses is confronted by the curious sight of a burning bush. God could have used something much more dramatic to get his attention – another flood, perhaps – but he uses an ordinary bush, which just happens to be burning from the inside. If Moses had been a less observant man, he might not have noticed the flame and passed right by. But he does notice, and he stops. God calls Moses by name, and Moses shows appropriate reverence and takes off his sandals. When God identifies Himself to the Israelite, what does Moses do? He covers his face. And Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God.

The tension continues, as God explains to Moses what He wants him to do – and Moses responds by insisting he is not up to the task. God chooses a man who is not ready to be a disciple, let alone the leader of the people of Israel. A man who has plenty of excuses. A man who is initially a very reluctant disciple.

Aren’t we all like that at times? Scared, reluctant children of God, eager to offer up an excuse when He calls us.

Reinhold Niebuhr, a preeminent theologian of the 20th century, is perhaps best-known for writing the Prayer of Serenity. I first discovered him my freshman year in college through a course on religion and ethics. His book, Moral Man and Immoral Society, was one of many assigned texts. Away from home for the first time in my life, I was questioning many things about my life, including my religious upbringing here at Westminster. But even with all the doubt I felt inside, Niebuhr made sense. To me, he was one of those rare religious people who could cultivate a thoughtful faith by keeping an open mind.

I recently stumbled upon a 1958 TV interview featuring Niebuhr. Believe it or not, a link to it came across my Twitter feed, a most unlikely source if you ask me. The interviewer is a young Mike Wallace of “Sixty Minutes” fame. During a 30-minute exchange, the two men talk about Catholicism, Protestantism, anti-Semitism, nuclear war, communism – this was during the height of the Cold War, after all – and the separation of church and state.

Toward the end, Wallace asks Niebuhr to explain his opinion on atheism. “What is your personal attitude toward atheists?” he says. Without missing a beat, the theologian invokes Jesus’ words from the Gospel of Matthew – familiar words like Judge not lest ye be judged… By their fruits ye shall know them.

Niebuhr tells Wallace that in the grand scheme of things, it makes little difference to him if a person considers himself a believer or a nonbeliever. Niebuhr says, “I wouldn’t judge a man by the presuppositions of his life, but only by the fruits of his life.” In other words, our actions can speak louder than not only our words, but even our deepest thoughts.

Young people, tomorrow you, along with your adult advisors, will embark on another Maine mission trip. You will continue a Westminster tradition that began more than 30 years ago. I’ve heard stories from my daughter, who went last year for the first time, about being tossed into the lake, walking along the beach, eating lobster, and checking out the store in Freeport on the way home. I’ve also heard about the many projects that are as exhilarating as they are exhausting: chopping wood, hammering, scraping, painting, installing windows, replacing doors, fixing a ramp so a place is accessible to those in wheelchairs. That’s good, clean, honest work in the truest sense of the word, and it’s ample reason to feel tired – and proud.

Yet even as you pack up all your clothes, sleeping bags and bug spray, and look forward to a time of fellowship and fun, I suspect you’ll feel a few butterflies.

For a week you’ll be in a rural place that has no Wi-Fi and poor, if any, cell-phone connection. And there’s no Starbucks! The only creature comforts of home you will have will be each other. I think that’s pretty cool.

In preparing my sermon, I asked your advisors about some of the anxieties they might be feeling, based on past Maine trips. Debbie Katz responded: “I’m always aware of the responsibility of taking care of someone else’s child. I’ve learned more about ticks than I want to. Sharing the same living space with a group of senior highs and college kids is a challenge. Sleeping in a church and sharing kitchen and bathroom space and waiting to use one of the three showers in the public school requires an adjustment as we become a community.”

One of my Facebook friends, Marta Rummenie King, went on 16 Maine mission trips, and she says each time, she still felt nervous about getting lost during the drive there and back.

I also asked what your advisors most appreciate. Becca Ballard responded: “I have been impressed overall by the way the kids work, and work together. When given the opportunity, they rise to the occasion. This is the body of Christ and this is the body of Christ in action.”

The body of Christ in action. By their fruits you shall know them.

When you were confirmed, you each had to write a faith statement. Do you remember? I hope you also remember your teachers telling you that confirmation was not an end to something, but the first step in the lifelong journey of your adult faith. To that end, I think the most meaningful “faith statement” you can ever write contains no words at all. Rather, your statement of faith is reflected in the actions of your everyday life. This includes how you will serve the people of East Sumner, Maine, and how you will take care of each other in the week ahead.

Scripture says:

“For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.

Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you’

Jesus replies, ‘I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.’”

Have fun and work hard. Take care of each other. We can’t wait to hear all about this part of your journey when you return. And thank you for representing Westminster.

Amen.

Snowfall

In December of 1969, I was one of the first pediatric patients in the area to undergo successful open-heart surgery. Born with a congenital defect, I’d undergone closed-heart surgery when I was two months old. My doctor was a dashing Asiatic Indian man who seemed more king than physician. His dark skin, wavy hair, and stylish goatee sparked fantasies of white stallions and exotic lands. His warm eyes conveyed a gentle strength that dazzled and reassured me.

I don’t remember all the details—I was six years old, after all—but I do keep mental video clips of my hospital experience. Like wearing a pretty nightgown someone had given me, and seeing my mother asleep in the cot next to my bed the night before surgery. Or waking up in intensive care, only to witness my hero tending to my wounds. After glimpsing the blood, I saw Dr. Subramanian smile at me and then I quickly fell back asleep. During my time in the ICU, my mother kept a constant vigil. She sat next to my bed, usually holding my hand and singing Japanese lullabies.

What I don’t remember is ever feeling afraid. From my vantage point, the world was filled with people who loved me beyond words and who would do anything to keep me safe. And though I couldn’t articulate it, their love defined my existence—and enabled me to touch God in ways I still can’t explain.

I was lucky enough to be discharged from the hospital a few days ahead of schedule, and just in time for Christmas Eve. When I entered Children’s Hospital before my operation, winter had not truly arrived. But by the time my parents were escorting me through the doors and out into the cold, I could smell and feel the crisp, clean snow.

Aside from my early release from the hospital, there are only two Christmas presents I remember. One was a baby doll my grandparents had given me. Sally had blonde hair and plastic limbs; her torso, made of tan fabric, had stuffing inside. One of the first things I did was take a fat magic marker and draw an incision down the middle of her chest. I used pieces of yarn to create an IV and EKG. I had a grand time playing with Sally in the corner of the living room. Little did my grandparents know that through this doll, they had given me the gift of feeling in control.

Then there was the turtle from my 10-year-old brother. As he showed it to me, George proudly explained the animal’s eating habits and pointed to its slow, but steady, movements. I tried my best not to let on that the brown creature was perhaps the ugliest thing I’d ever seen. Today, I finally realize the turtle’s significance: like me, my brother needed the gift of control that Christmas.

In fact, we humans are in a lifelong struggle between control and surrender. When we’re feeling the most fortunate, we tend to give ourselves all of the credit. And when we’re feeling beaten, it’s easy to blame our sorrow on others—including the Creator.

Not surprisingly, I still look forward to the first snowfall of every winter. Offering a visceral connection to my childhood, fresh snow becomes a supreme gift of memory, surrender, and gratitude. I feel alive when I feel the gentle, quiet snowflakes of Christmas, brushing against my cheeks.

Originally written in 2005. Pioneering surgeon Dr. Sambamurthy Subramanian died in 2015 at the age of 81.

Chasing Hillary

Whether you revere or revile her, Hillary Rodham Clinton is a force of nature in America’s intense political climate. The first First Lady to hold a post-graduate degree, she was also the first president’s wife to assume a high-profile role in shaping national policy through an ambitious—and some would say overzealous—healthcare initiative. More than a decade later, as New York’s junior senator, she’s not only one of the most influential politicians in the Northeast, but widely regarded as the front-runner for the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination. It’s no surprise, then (though she’s technically not a Western New Yorker) that Clinton makes Spree’s list of powerful women.

I still remember when then-presidential candidate Bill Clinton made his 1992 appearance on Sixty Minutes. Not yet sure about the silver-haired Southerner, I remember being intrigued by the woman with the Junior League hairdo and enormous blue eyes sitting next to him. Unlike a lot of politicians’ wives, she spoke bluntly, looking directly at the interviewer. There was nothing coy about her—which was refreshing. I could even forgive her clumsy comment about Tammy Wynette’s song; it seemed pretty clear that like her husband, this woman was destined for a long engagement with the American electorate.

She was born Hillary Diane Rodham on October 26, 1947. The daughter of a conservative businessman and a traditional homemaker, she grew up in a Chicago suburb and attended public school. Clinton first became politically active at age sixteen, when she supported presidential hopeful Barry Goldwater. A star student at Wellesley, she presided over its chapter of the College Republicans. By 1968, she had moved toward the liberal end of the political spectrum, and on May 31, 1969, became the first student ever to deliver the school’s commencement address. With the Vietnam War protests as her historical backdrop, it was a speech that proved to be as prescient as it was controversial.

The first time I saw Clinton live, albeit from a great distance, was during her initial bid for the senate. Introduced at a rally by comedian/activist Bill Cosby, she was, at first, barely audible over the loud cheers. Within minutes, her exhortations equaled, both in volume and passion, the cheers of her young supporters. It was as surreal as any rock concert. The year was 2000—I had no idea that my next, brief encounter with the Yale Law School graduate would be up close and personal.

Just this past summer, Senator Clinton kicked off Biotech Partnership Day at the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus. Through some delicate negotiations, thanks in large part to a friend with political connections, I had gained prior knowledge of Clinton’s July 31 visit. During the weeks leading up to that day, I prepared a set of interview questions—in between reading Living History, her 2003 memoir; It Takes a Village, her 1996 bestseller; and anything else I could get my hands on.

When the day for the interview opportunity finally came, I was surprisingly calm. Spree photographer Jim Bush and I drove to the Center of Excellence for Bioinformatics. Within a few minutes, we were greeted by Press Secretary Jennifer Hanley. The Secret Service agents were milling about, as were Clinton’s stalwart staffers, all dressed in smart navy blue pantsuits. In my white jeans and tank top, I felt a little underdressed. But at least I was keeping cool on what promised to be a sweltering day.

Clinton addressed the invitation-only crowd at the conference, cosponsored by Pfizer and New Jobs for New York, Inc. During her opening remarks, she promoted a plan to preserve Western New York’s “intellectual capital” while creating manufacturing jobs in the biotech industry. Immediately after her talk, reporters were directed to a small room, where Clinton took to the podium. After introducing Mayor Brown and others, she fielded questions on everything from biotechnology to Hezbollah.

The next stop was the Robinson Farms in Lockport, where Clinton unveiled her policy on upstate New York’s rural economy. Standing in front of a John Deere tractor in an enormous barn packed with local residents and the media, she still looked remarkably fresh in her beige pantsuit. (The rest of us were drenched.) As she talked about bringing broadband technology to the countryside and the importance of being competitive with countries like China, a nine-year-old boy named Todd worked his way through the crowd and began handing out cherries.

After her speech, the press, local residents, and anyone else who had survived the heat surrounded the charismatic woman. All were eager for a handshake or a photo op. Young Todd suddenly reappeared and burst into a solo rendition of “America the Beautiful.” Mrs. Clinton led the rousing ovation. Glancing at my watch, I started to have my doubts about getting in any of my own questions.

Just as I felt hope slipping away, I found myself six inches from the former First Lady and being formally introduced by Press Secretary Hanley. Flipping the record button on my tiny machine, I commented on the Magical Mystery Tour-like morning and asked Clinton how she could talk so easily on complex matters. She flashed her trademark smile. “It takes time to study up on everything, and my good staff keeps me informed about things that are going on. It’s part of my job.”

A car waiting to go to the airport had already pulled up outside the barn. I asked Clinton about her role during the 1970 student protests at Yale University. “Although your heart was with the so-called radicals, you maintained your father’s pragmatism. You were singled out as the voice of reason…”

Before I could continue, she interjected calmly, “Well, we’re goin’ through it again, aren’t we? The challenge is to try to figure out how to bring people together to seek some common ground because we have so many big problems. And that’s kind of how I see my role: to try to keep being a bridge. It’s not easy, because lots of times people want you on one side or the other.” By then, she’d already handed me back my copy of It Takes a Village, specially autographed for my daughter.

My own makeup having melted away hours ago, it seemed only natural to look her in the eye and chuckle, “How can you not sweat on a day like today?!” She simply smiled.

And then she was off—the lady from Park Ridge who married the man from Hope. Will she become the first woman leader of the Free World someday?

Only time will tell.

Originally published in the September/October 2006 issue of Buffalo Spree as part of a series on powerful Western New York women.

Forever Grateful

Staring at the piles of garden tools, old paint cans, and dust-covered appliances that haven’t been used in decades, my mother and I are a bit daunted. The basement, the realtor tells us, is a good place to begin. But how do you begin to sort through forty-five years of living in a house that was the home for three children and became the emotional center of a marriage that endured for more than half a century?

Two winters ago, my mom ventured outside to retrieve a bag of rock salt from her car. She slipped on the icy sidewalk and hit the back of her head. Having managed to lift herself up, she walked gingerly back inside and called me at work. I rushed to her house, where I found her in the kitchen, nursing a huge lump with a hastily made ice pack. We couldn’t detect any blood, but we knew a trip to the ER was a sensible idea. Mom ended up having to spend the night in the hospital; they administered a CT scan to confirm the absence of internal bleeding and hooked her up to some sort of monitor. Throughout all of this, my thoughts intermittently shifted to another day from seven years earlier. It was in April of 2007 when my father, then 75, suffered a hemorrhagic stroke. From the minute he was found lying on the floor at home to the moment Mom, my siblings, and I gathered around his bed in the ICU to say goodbye, I felt the inexorable pull of life’s harsh transitions.

The aftermath of Dad’s death left us all a little numb, and more than a bit disjointed and lost. We each were adrift on the sea of grief in our own private vessel; the pain might have been broadly shared, but the process of experiencing it was different for each of us. I still can’t begin to imagine the depths of sorrow Mom endured those first few years. I only wish I could have been better equipped to help her through them.

I think back to the happiest days of my youth—and even the saddest—and realize how fortunate I was to be grounded in the love of family. We weren’t wealthy compared to other families in our neighborhood, but I never wanted for anything. And although it’s hard to confront the mortality of those we love, I realize now that the inevitability of aging and dying is exactly what makes loving and living so real—and eternal. Even if we become parents ourselves, I don’t think we fully grow up until we witness the frailty, or experience the loss, of our own parents.

This April will mark nine years since Dad died. A lot has changed—once-tiny grandchildren are now in high school or college—and more changes are afoot. The details of the next chapter in Mom’s life may still be unknown, but the urgency with which we prepare for it is real.

And so back to the cellar and all those piles of memories we go—it’s the only way to work up to the main floors and the even dustier attic, where more surprises await. Although the task is monumental and the sorting through of things bittersweet, I quietly embrace this gift. Spending time with a woman who, at 84, is still remarkably spirited, becomes a chance to get to know my mother even better. To hear more family stories—ones I hadn’t heard before—and to create new memories.

I believe it was psychiatrist and author M. Scott Peck who wrote that those who obsess about the past fear the future, and those who fixate on the future have unresolved issues with their past. The key is to find the balance and truly live in, and for, the moment. I think love is a powerful force with which to meet the present, indulge in memories that can transport us, albeit fleetingly, back to the past, and most importantly, stay hopeful and focused for the future.

Originally published in the February 2016 issue of Forever Young magazine.

My Mother’s American Kitchen

My Japanese mother was born ten years before the attack on Pearl Harbor. She met my American father during the 1950s, when he was stationed near Tokyo with the U.S. Army. After a whirlwind courtship, they married in 1955. Three years later, she traveled with him to Buffalo. My mother arrived in her new country, eager to begin a new life with the man she loved, yet wondering if she’d ever see her hometown again.

The youngest in a family with six children, she came here with limited cooking skills. The new American housewife enthusiastically learned some recipes from her mother-in-law and Betty Crocker, but a yearning for her own mother’s cuisine inspired Mom to teach herself how to re-create familiar tastes. Within a few years, she’d perfected meals that would fatten her adoring husband’s belly and sustain her three children. As a child, I enjoyed hot breakfasts of okayu (rice gruel) with miso and sumptuous meals of teriyaki chicken, pork tonkatsu, and yakimeshi (fried rice with chunks of ham, peppers, egg, and onions). One of my father’s favorite suppers was oyako donburi—a big bowl of chicken, egg, and vegetables atop steaming white rice. Christmas dinner meant a sukiyaki feast, with fresh ingredients handpicked at the local grocery store. Family picnics meant a basket filled with handrolled norimaki made of nori (seaweed), vinegared rice, sweetened omelet, cucumbers, shiitake mushrooms, and pickled ginger. Still, I often wondered why we never packed hotdogs or hamburgers, like the other American families.

Mom’s culinary prowess made her rather famous among the more adventurous eaters in my parents’ growing circle of friends. I always knew when company was coming over for dinner. The telltale aromas of tempura—julienned carrots, green beans, and scallion, deep-fried in a delicate golden batter—and gyoza, the Japanese version of Chinese pork dumplings, wafted from my mother’s kitchen all the way up to the third floor.

This was the 1960s and early ‘70s, when there was no such thing as packaged tofu, frozen edamame, Wegmans sushi, or “Asian fusion.” Thanks to care packages from concerned aunts and uncles, Mom received generous provisions of nori and furikake—dried seaweed and fish flakes to put on our white rice—along with green tea and other delicacies. As she opened up each package, my older brother and I hovered impatiently, just to catch a whiff of what we called “the Japan smell.”

On the weekends, my parents often took us to Tsujimoto’s, a charming gift shop run by a second-generation Japanese couple out in Elma. As soon as my brother and I entered the store, scents reminiscent of all those well-traveled packages captivated our nostrils. We spied candy, osenbe (rice crackers), as well as origami paper, toys, mobiles, kites, lanterns, and other treasures. Ever the gracious hosts, Mr. and Mrs. Tsujimoto made us feel completely at ease. We wandered the narrow aisles and freely explored the different colors, shapes, textures, and smells. Sometimes, it felt as if we could have wandered forever. I fixated on the dolls staring back at me from the shelves, their eyes so reassuringly similar to my own. My brother’s most prized discovery was a cricket cage made of bamboo, which he used to catch grasshoppers in the field right outside the store.

Mrs. Tsujimoto passed away in 1992. We lost my father in 2007. This past autumn I learned that Mr. Tsujimoto, long since retired from the gift-shop business, had died at the grand age of 93. My brother, now an engineer with Moog, tells me his route to and from work takes him by the former site of the store each day. For me, the childhood pilgrimages to Elma seem so distant in memory. And yet the tastes and smells from my mother’s glorious kitchen, her gift to each of us growing up, are never far from my consciousness.

My mother doesn’t cook elaborate meals as often as she used to. Last October I took her to the Sun Restaurant for a birthday celebration. It was her first time to try Chef Kevin’s Burmese twist on a Japanese import. I anxiously watched as she reached over with her chopsticks, meticulously picking up a mouthful of black rice sushi. “Delicious,” she said with an approving smile.

Originally published in the February 2014 issue of Buffalo Spree.

The Art of Letting Go

A decade ago, I wrote my first commentary for WBFO. It was about a shopping trip with my then four-year-old daughter. Today, that bubbly little girl is an adventurous teen. Her fashion sense has, if anything, become even more audacious over time. Her mother, too, is ten years older, hopefully a little wiser, and the girl, much more eager to explore the world on her own terms.

We’re no longer negotiating jagged sidewalks during a spontaneous bike ride to Delaware Park, and our differences of opinion have little to do with vegetables or toys. Now we negotiate curfews and sleepovers, the latest party or the next teen dance. Most of the time, our exchanges are civil. But when the stakes are especially high for both of us, the power struggle can be intense. It’s then I want to reach for photo albums filled with frozen images of earlier, easier times. Compared to discussing the dangers of substance abuse or the virtues of platonic friendship, changing a soiled diaper was nothing.

A friend reassures me. “Stop pining for the toddler she once was. Stand back and appreciate the young adult she’s becoming.”

And he’s absolutely right. The amount of energy, time and, let’s face it, ego that I’ve invested in raising my daughter should in no way limit her ability to keep walking forward on that long, uneven road to adulthood. This includes the freedom to make, and learn from, her own mistakes.

Yet every time she ventures out to another party, my insides get a little tight. Each time she breathlessly recounts how cute someone was at a dance, my mind flashes back to my own memories of adolescent romance. Whenever I drive somewhere to pick her up, I can’t help but think that in just a few short years, it won’t always be me behind the wheel anymore.

Today’s youth love to broadcast their most personal thoughts using the most public venues. In posting raw and silly comments for their BFFs on the Internet, they’re also sharing delicate secrets with an audience that’s much wider than they could ever visualize. And here I am, recording a very personal commentary that allows me to reach a large group of listeners, many of whom I will never meet.

To all the parents of teens out there, I’m with you. We know all too well the painful push-and-pull between yes and no. We rely on the sometimes vain hope that when the going gets really tough, we can simply say, “Because I said so”— and have that be the end of it.

I know that my daughter and I will survive these years. Despite the posturing, the pouting and the occasional shouting, the love remains. If anything, it’s grown stronger.

But for now, we each have a job to do. Hers, to challenge many of the boundaries I’ve set, if only to know how far she must still travel to reach the other side of childhood. And mine, to provide the invisible string that allows her to venture farther out on her own, while maintaining a consistent and safe connection.

I suppose in the end, I’ll get through it just like my own parents did: one worry and one joy at a time.

Recorded in June 2010 as a Listener Commentary for WBFO, an NPR affiliate

An Old-fashioned Love Story

She was wearing white, and looked barely 20. He was striking in his Navy uniform. Her blue eyes were big and round, her glowing face framed by soft golden curls. His intense gaze communicated a delicate balance between steely confidence and inner warmth.

I stared at the faded black and white photo, finally recognizing the older couple, friends of my parents whom I had grown up calling “aunt” and “uncle.” This was their wedding picture, taken more than half a century ago, and one of many photos propped up on the table in the funeral parlor. “She looks like a princess,” gasped my 6-year-old daughter, who had insisted on accompanying me that afternoon.

“Yes, I know. And he was her prince.”

I surprised myself with this matter-of-fact response, devoid of my usual cynicism. After the death of my marriage, I was so disillusioned, I launched a crusade to purge my daughter’s personal library of any story that smacked of simplistic fantasy. Topping my hit list were classic fairy tales like Cinderella and Snow White, stories that I had devoured as a wide-eyed child.

But that afternoon in the funeral parlor, where we were both moved so deeply by the photograph before us, I suddenly found myself whispering about princes again — after years of mourning lost dreams.

A friend who helped me through the difficult transition from life before divorce to life after it used to insist on a new ending to traditional fairy tales. “That conclusion about how they all lived happily ever after,” she remarked, “I think they should change it to, ‘and then the real work began.'” Her comment made me realize, among other things, how betrayed I had felt by my own limitations during the marriage, not merely by my ex-husband’s.

At the funeral parlor, what struck me about that wedding picture was not only how young the bride and groom looked, but how distinct from each other they seemed. Even their happy pose conveyed a careful distance. This photo had captured the two at the start of their journey together, when underneath the glow of elation were probably nervousness and even doubt. There was no way to predict how far the journey would take them. There was no way to anticipate how their pose in relation to each other would change.

By the time I met them, this man and woman typified a husband and wife who not only knew each other’s endearing quirks and annoying habits, but who had even started to take on each other’s facial expressions. Placed next to the wedding picture was a new color photo, which showed the couple at their grandson’s recent wedding. The occasion marked the last time they slow-danced together.

Since the funeral, all those tales of handsome princes and faraway castles don’t seem so daunting anymore; I have even calmed my impulse to shield my daughter from the occasional fantasy. The classics are back on the shelves, and now during the bedtime ritual with young Hanna, they stand just as much chance of being picked as the stories about modern heroines like Power Puff Girls and Amelia Bedelia.

I imagine the mistake lies not in believing in dreams, but in depriving ourselves of the chance to dream fully. Indeed, a passionate, honest commitment to the hard work of loving someone — that’s the stuff of life. It’s what helps us grow up instead of simply growing old.

Originally titled “Old-fashioned Love Story Never Goes Out of Style” and published as a “My View” column in 2002 in The Buffalo News

All Those Years Ago

I woke up that morning and turned on the radio for the daily update on the Taliban’s retreat, only to learn of the death of the “quiet” Beatle at the age of 58. Caught off-guard, I began to cry. I was propelled back in time to December 8, 1980, when I was just 17 years old, alone in my bedroom, and grieving for my fallen idol, John Lennon. Of course, the circumstances were much different then. Lennon had been gunned down by a deranged fan; Harrison, having battled cancer for the past few years, died with his wife and grown son at his bedside. And despite the ravaging effects of his illness, he had at least had the gift of time to say goodbye to those he loved.

Like most young people, I projected my deepest hopes and ambitions onto celebrities of pop culture while I was growing up. The charismatic and controversial Lennon was particularly alluring. Like my father, he was a Caucasian who had rebelled against Western convention by marrying an enigmatic Japanese woman. But more than this cross-cultural connection, there was the music: the imaginative songs that communicated ebullience, anger, defiance, doubt, love, and hope. As a high school senior, I would routinely do my homework while listening to my Beatles LPs – at full volume, and to the utter dismay of my parents. More than 20 years later, it is impossible for me to choose a single favorite Beatles tune. I loved all of them.

With George Harrison’s passing, I have begun my own Fab Four revival. It amazes me that after all these years, I can still remember the lyrics. I warble along with the lads while driving to work, making dinner, or washing the dishes. But even as I revel in the playfulness of “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da,” or surrender to the earnestness of “Something,” I step outside my admiration and wonder.

Why do the deaths of celebrities tug at our emotions? We still worship the mystery surrounding Marilyn’s probable suicide; we make pilgrimages to Graceland to remember a rock ‘n’ roll king; we flood the internet with sentimental gushing after the accidental deaths of JFK Jr. and Princess Diana. What about the heroic non-celebrities we live with every day? Our spouses, friends, parents, neighbors, coworkers – and yes, even our children – can easily be taken for granted. A friend’s favorite saying – “No one gets out of this world alive” – used to provide a good cynical chuckle every time I heard it. But the recent horror of September 11th has forced a fresh perspective on cruel, untidy, and untimely deaths – and the reality that we can lose those we move most at any given moment.

Grief touches everyone differently. I believe that at its core is the denial not merely of the death of a particular friend or family member, but of our own mortality.

The morning I learned of George Harrison’s death, I wept. Not like I did when I was a heartbroken 17-year-old – but just long enough to wake my 6-year-old daughter. When Hanna walked groggily into the bathroom and asked me why I was crying, I explained that I was a little sad. I had just heard about the death of someone I had never met, but who had meant a lot to me a long time ago. As I ended my confessional, the radio station began playing “Here Comes the Sun.” I lifted Hanna up and began twirling her around. Soon our spirited dancing was punctuated by her giggles, my hugs and kisses. It seemed a fitting tribute to the Englishman who, along with his boyhood pals, helped remind the world that “in the end, the love you take is equal to the love you make.”

Recorded on December 11, 2001, as a Listener Commentary for WBFO-FM

A Teacher’s Legacy

I was about seven the first time I saw my father teach. I sat in the back of the lecture room, scribbling in an examination “blue book.” Every once in a while, I looked up at the people seated near me, unwitting inspiration for my imaginative stories. Next to the blackboard was a tall man, gesturing wildly with chalk in hand, his usually soft voice at full volume as he punctuated his lecture with anecdotes from history. Like a born-again preacher wooing his congregation, my father spoke zealously. His gospel for students? Learn about history in order to understand your grandparents, your parents — and yourselves.

I remember asking him many years ago if he liked his job. He smiled broadly. “What other job would pay me to read books?” But even then, I knew teaching for him was about more than devouring the latest hardcover analysis of political upheaval. It was about translating scholarly ideas into language that could engage the minds of history majors, business majors and college jocks alike. It was about nurturing the worldview of even the most provincial undergraduate student.

Being the child of an academic had unique perks. Like the dinnertime conversations that enlightened my brother, sister and me about American diplomacy after the Second World War. Or the help I got with a high-school research assignment on the Middle East. Of course, there were also drawbacks to growing up in a family headed by a professor. One Christmas, for example, while most families huddled together in front of the TV to watch “It’s a Wonderful Life,” my father summoned all of us for a video double feature: Leni Riefenstahl’s “Triumph of the Will” followed by Charlie Chaplin’s “The Great Dictator.” Somehow, even family gatherings could turn into history lessons.

A lot has happened since Dad picked up his first piece of chalk. Back in 1963, there were no PowerPoint projectors or VCRs in university lecture halls — nor did any PCs grace the desktops in offices. Yet even after these technological advances made their way onto campus, my father eschewed the wizardry of modern academia. He winced at words like “multimedia,” took his sweet time warming up to chalk replacements like dry-erase markers, and staunchly refused to learn how to use a laptop. Having never learned to type, the eccentric professor relied instead on his distinctive longhand to create syllabi and exams, painstakingly writing out words as well as drawing his own maps.

At times an intellectual curmudgeon, he confronted each student essay with a critical eye. But I can think of no better gift for a student than a set of firm expectations based on high standards. Especially when the teacher holds himself equally accountable. Even for courses he taught repeatedly, my father liked assigning new books so that he, too, could be reading and learning alongside his students. By becoming the wise mentor, he kept himself young at heart.

In a few months, the man who fell in love with teaching some forty years ago will retire from the classroom. While the septuagenarian’s body is more than ready to slow down, his mind for recalling dates and events remains razor-sharp — and his appetite for understanding national identities and global affairs, ravenous. Somehow, I just can’t picture the old man on a golf course.

“Those who can, do. Those who can’t, teach.” Or so the putdown goes. But educators can have a profound influence on the consciousness — and conscience — of each one of us. As Henry Adams said, “A teacher affects eternity; he can never tell where his influence stops.”

Originally titled “Great Professors Exert Profound Influence On Us” and published as a “My View” column in the May 7, 2003 issue of The Buffalo News

Dinosaurs

My five-year-old daughter is in denial. She can’t accept the fact that her current object of affection and admiration, the venerable dinosaur, is extinct. During a recent visit to the science museum, she gives full expression to her indignation. Looking up at the enormous replica of the triceratops, she places her hands squarely on her hips and shouts: “Wake UP!”

But isn’t that the magic of childhood curiosity? Being passionate about something that we adults have long since forgotten, or take for granted?

“No, the Tyrannosaurus Rex is from the Cretaceous period, Mom, not the Jurassic!” My daughter corrects me as I comment on the creature’s distinctive jaw. I am half-thinking about the Spielberg blockbuster from a decade ago. Seeing another parent chuckle from a few feet away, I am humbled not merely by the fact that my precocious child has just set me straight on my science facts, but more importantly, by the realization that with a few spontaneous remarks, she is putting my existence into perspective. Long before all the cars and buildings and cell phones, there were these big amazing animals that walked the earth. Their brains might have been pea-sized in comparison to their mighty bodies, but they managed to survive for quite a while.

Compared to our charges, we adults focus on less sublime matters. I worry about the plummeting stock market and my expanding waistline; meanwhile, energized by her kindergartner’s thirst for knowledge about the world, my child frets over the disappearance of the largest creatures ever to roam our planet. I watch her as she bounces across the room, and then darts from the exhibit about the long neck dinosaur to the museum’s vivid picture of a saber tooth cat, snarling back at her through the glass case.

I see the heartbreak in my daughter’s eyes every time I give her my “I’m the adult” look and remind her that no, the dinosaurs aren’t coming back. “They’ve been dead for a long time, Hanna.” As she crinkles up her nose in irritation, I realize how presumptuous I am. As long as there are eager minds to question and appreciate the grand mysteries of life, nothing about these mysteries will ever truly die.

Children teach us every day to see things for the first time, and to remember them as if they will never disappear, never become extinct. Breathing new life into creatures that have been physically dead for eons, my daughter gives me the gift of spiritual rebirth— and imagination. As we near the end of the exhibit, I look back at the towering models and catch myself smiling. Some day, light years from now, where will the models of the once-great humans be found?

(2001)