Category Archives: Friends / Family

Esto no es vida but it’s the only one we’ve got

Last Sunday was the first day that my children’s feet touched the street in forty-five days. Tears came to my eyes as I watched them sprint down the sidewalk. Freedom, albeit limited.

On the Monday, we went out when there were much less children and found a quiet path beneath some trees. At first, I felt like I was living in a chapter of The Road, but then I had my own feeling of freedom. In Spain, there is a saying when things are bad: “Esto no es vida” or “this is no life”. But this is our life. It is the only one we’re living, so we have to enjoy it. Who knows what will happen next? Right now we are healthy, tomorrow that may not be the case. Let’s enjoy the small freedoms and all the other ways life is worth living.

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Walking Around

During the past 50 odd days living under the strict confinement rules here in Madrid, Spain, I have often looked out from my balcony towards the horizon where I would have previously seen a constant flow of airplanes landing. These days I have only seen empty skies. When I look down towards the streets where I would have previously seen traffic and people walking around, now the streets seem liberated of human activity save for the stray dog-walker and the occasional empty bus with its lone driver. Except for birds chirping in the early hours of the day and the 8pm applause of neighbors, more than anything else confinement in Madrid has been defined by silence.

And each day, I have thought about Pablo Neruda’s “Walking Around”. Sure, I want my kids to leave the house, go to school, soccer practice, and play with their friends. They need other kids more than anything else right now. And sure, I would love to be able to go to the grocery store or walk out the front door and not fear that inhaling or touching my face were life threatening. I do not want to live in fear. I do not want to breath into a piece of cloth. I do not want to question if and when I will see family again.

But I am not ready to go back. I don’t have any need to ride the bus to work or get into a crowded elevator. I don’t feel nostalgia for the office, for meeting rooms, or dropping by someone’s desk. I don’t want to share the same door handles or bathroom. I don’t miss button-down shirts or proper pants. I am getting along with out them very well. I could use a haircut, but like Neruda’s man who is sick of being a man, I don’t want to walk into a barbershop.

But then today, after seven weeks of silence, adults have been allowed out of their homes, albeit on a limited basis. And suddenly, I look over my balcony and finally everywhere there are people … walking around.

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My Children’s Mental Health is what Terrifies Me about Covid-19

 

We live in Spain, one of the countries hardest hit by Covid-19 and with some of the strictest confinement rules around. Covid-19 has affected people here in many different ways from

  • the health care works living through war-like conditions with war-like causalities,
  • to sick and dying wondering whether they will leave this earth without ever seeing the face or feeling the embrace of a loved one again,
  • to the family-centric Spaniards watching from a distance as their parents and loved ones die without being able to do anything to comfort them or even bury their bodies,
  • to those single people who haven’t had a physical human interaction (other than at the grocery store) in over 50 days,
  • to families like mine trying to juggle work and homeschooling with their children’s extreme cabin fever.

My family has been very fortunate that we haven’t been sick yet and that as non-Spaniards we haven’t had to suffer the predicament of elderly relatives.  So while I recognize that Covid-19 has been much harder on other people here than on us, watching the impact on my children’s mental health and not knowing how to help has been worse than the sleepless nights, the worrying about the future, or when I will see my parents again.

Even when the government lifted the strict restrictions on children leaving the house after 45 days of total confinement, the one hour/day walk they’re now permitted to do isn’t doing the trick. I still witness my children unravel – from one moment to the next – before my eyes. And it terrifies me. More than going outside, they need to interact with other children their age. The need space from their brothers and sisters, from the parents. They need to be with other people that do not live in their same home, and they need to be with them in 3D, not on a flat screen with a blue light.

Unfortunately, I don’t see that happening any time in the near future. More than wanting my life back, I want theirs back.

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Y2K 20 Years Later

Twenty years ago as we were about to enter the new century, as my hometown and place of residence Washington, DC was preparing for fireworks and a jubilant New Year’s Eve’s celebration on the Mall, all anyone was talking about was Y2K.

Not me. My mind was on other things. I had my first real law firm job and we were in the middle of heated litigation. As I was learning, litigants used filing motions to ruin each other’s holidays. If I recall correctly I had to file responsive briefs on the days just proceeding Christmas and immediately following New Year’s day. In fact, by December 31st, I had worked eighteen days straight including weekends, with the sole exception of Christmas Day. Even though my client was winning in court, the opposing party was putting lots of political pressure on our client to drop the case. In fact, the heat was getting to our client and our client – who until then had been extremely supportive – had suddenly starting taking their frustration out on us.

Like I said, I was a junior lawyer completely new to what I was doing. I had been working close to eighty hour weeks for the entire year almost exclusively on this one client’s case. During this time, my girlfriend had left for a job in Europe (and for good) and I barely saw friends or family. Yes, my bank account was growing. But when the clock struck 10:30pm on December 31, 1999 and my boss came to my desk to cheerfully suggest, “why don’t you find the security guard to see if he’ll let us on the rooftop to watch the fireworks at midnight,” I thought I was going to cry.

I searched the desolate building for the security guard but could not find him. As you can imagine, my boss and I were the only two losers in the building on New Year’s Eve. I finally got the courage to go to my boss and say, “if you don’t mind, out of principle I am not going to spend this change of the century in the office.”

“That’s fine. I will see you tomorrow morning at 9:00am. Happy New Year,” she replied.

By 11:15pm, I was back in my tiny studio apartment, sitting at my tiny table feeling awful about my predicament. I called up my friends Jeff and Rasdy with whom I had spent the previous four New Year’s Eves. Each year it was exactly the same. We’d plan to meet at one of their places, then an hour before we were supposed to be there, they’d get in a big fight, cancel the party only to make up 30 minutes later. By midnight we’d end up at Sesto Senso making the best of what was always the most disappointing night out of the year.

I can’t remember whether it was Jeff or Raz who answered the phone, but they said come on over, we’re waiting for you. Like always, we ended up at Sesto with Jeff and I making fools of ourselves on the dance floors while we made fun of everyone around us.

The next morning, I was at the office at 9:30am. I went on to work the next 15 days straight, responding to more motions and attending court proceedings while sick with the flu.

Y2K turned out to be the biggest much ado about nothing of the 20th Century. Later that year, I moved to Madrid. But ever since that night of Y2K whenever it is time to plan for New Year’s Eve, I always play Ella Fitzgerald signingWhat Are You Doing New Year’s Eve” and think of Jeff and Rasdy.

 

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RIP Scooter Scaggs: There are 5 Fingers Pointing at You!

On Thursday, the incredibly loved and influential David Marshall “Scooter” Scaggs passed away after having suffered a rare form of early onset dementia that he had been diagnosed with in 2008. I don’t even know how to begin describing Scooter. He was a force of life. A husband, father, teacher, coach and mentor to so many of us young boys trying to become men.

He was never my coach per se, but was my first boss and champion. Scooter had been the coach of the very celebrated Woodward High School soccer team during the 80s. But more importantly for me, he developed and ran the Maryland Soccer School which was held for five weeks each summer at Bullis High School, just a short walk from my house.

How and exactly why Scooter hired me, I don’t remember. Most of the guys he picked were his Woodward players, went to Walter Johnson after Woodward closed, or were considered the county’s soccer All Stars. I was none of these. When my teammates Jim Geopfert (whose brother Rick was a counselor) and David Schwab were fourteen, Scooter tapped us to be gophers. Basically that meant we set up the fields for the day’s training sessions and games, but it also entitled us to hang with the older camp coaches and counselors.  These were people like Friedy, Devin, goalkeeper Tim, Steve K, Irv the Swerve and his brother Mike. For guys like Jim, David and I, they were our heroes and role models. We got to eat with them in the coaches’ room (basically the locker room), and play pick-up games during the lunch break with all of the kids cheering us on.

I was a very shy kid who always flew under the radar, so the fact that Scooter had somehow selected me to form part of his elite gang of youth soccer stars was an inexplicable honor. As mentioned, the vast majority of the coaches and counselors were not from my high school. That Jim, David and I were the only ones selected from our year was also very special, and we felt it. Furthermore, Scooter demanded a level of responsibility, enthusiasm and kindness from his counselors that was required to manage and motivate his campers. In other words, it wasn’t enough to be a great player, you needed to be someone who could handle kids from the ages of 6-14.

After two years as gophers, we finally graduated to full camp counselors, and I remained at the Maryland Soccer School every summer until my freshman year in college. When I look back at my formative high school years, those were the most memorable. It made my summers. I spent from 8:00am to 4:00pm with a soccer ball at my feet, and I started developing those first skills that have later defined me as a professional. I learned to be empathetic and use empathy as a key asset, to be part of team, to manage and motivate. And I learned that when you are the coach and you’ve been handed a team that you cannot fire or change, you need to find the best role for each member to make that team successful.

As mentioned, one of the biggest highlights of the day were the exhibition games played amongst the counselors. Another were the indoor sessions the kids would have twice a day to get out of the summer heat. In these, we watched films about Pele or the World Cup. Friedy would announce with great fanfare the first, second and third “stars” for each game, with the first stars winning the highly coveted blow-pops. This was usually followed by the entire camp chanting “Friedy eats quiche” (whatever that meant). Then Scooter would give us motivational talks, usually about the importance of team work. Here are some of his classic lines:

  • There is no “i” in team
  • When you point your finger at someone, there are three fingers pointing back at you
  • Inch by inch, life’s a cinch, yard by yard it’s very hard
  • If you hoot with the owls at night you can’t soar with the eagles in the morning!

And then the silly ones like:

  • If the rain keeps up, it won’t come down
  • A buck two eighty

With Sam Debone at the Dr. Peppers Cup in Dallas

But Scooter didn’t do it all on his own. His family was always there, and he had Sam Debone. Back then Debone was the soccer coach of Whitman High School and the Wheaton Kickers club team, both of which were my high school and club team’s biggest rivals. Debone was another mentor. Knowing that I was loyal to my club team and couldn’t be poached, Debone nevertheless invited me to play for his team in tournaments where mine was not competing, including traveling with the Kickers.

In 1988, Scooter and Debone took a select team of Montgomery County soccer players to play exhibition games in London. I was asked to join them. It was my first ever trip to Europe. The following year I was again invited when they took a team to Nice and Cannes where I am pretty sure we played against Zinedine Zidane. You could say that those first trips to Europe had an incredible influence on my life. I ultimately moved to Europe where I have been living now for almost two decades.

Sadly some time in the early 90s, I lost contact with Scooter, his family and coach Debone. Nevertheless, I often thought about them. For example, I would go to a Real Madrid match in Madrid and think about the first professional match I went to with them in London (Chelsea vs. Arsenal). Or it would rain, and I would think, “if the rain keeps up …”, or I would see the word “team” written somewhere and immediately notice there was no “i”.

This past summer, I spent a few weeks at my parent’s house in Maryland with my wife and kids. I put my eldest son (then 6) in the Bullis Soccer Camp which is now run by Coach Andrés and the Bullis School. Coach Andrés does a fine job and my son loved it. But I couldn’t help to look around with a heavy heart full of nostalgia, searching for Scooter with his Soccer-topper hat, Coach Debone with his whistle, Anna and the kids, and all of us coaches wearing our yellow camp counselor jerseys. The camp no longer uses the old locker room where we’d negotiate which kids got which stars, play practical jokes on Scooter and Debone, or where those who played for Scooter would share their war stories. When I got home, I searched and searched for one of those old Maryland Soccer School jerseys. I used to have dozens and wore them all summer long. But there were none to be found. I also couldn’t find any decent photos of our trips to London or France.

But even without any good physical remnant of that time, on those rare occasions when I meet up with Jim, Rick or David, we almost always immediately go into rambling off our favorite Scooter Scaggs catch phrases.

So Scooter, if you can see me now, I am pointing at you with all five of my fingers. Thanks for believing in me.

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Christmas Series Part 4: 100 Christmases

I love Christmas. It is special and joyous and nostalgic, often bitter sweet but always hopeful.

This year will be my grandmother’s 100th Christmas. I just can’t start to explain what that means.

Let’s give Nat King Cole a little lesson in arithmetic:

Merry Christmas to All from One to Ninety-Two One Hundred and Two!

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Christmas Series Part 3: The Songs

In Part 1 of my Christmas Series 2017 I wrote about the Islamic Jesus, and in Part 2 about Hanukkah and my healthy childhood for the Jewish holidays. But one thing I definitely preferred about Christmas over Hanukkah was the music. Hanukkah only had the dreidel song, but there seemed to be endless Christmas songs, each with an inherent sense of nostalgia and hope, which in the end are the cornerstones of the holiday season’s allure. So every year starting on Black Friday, I fire up my favorite Christmas songs, and ever since becoming a father, I literally inundate my home with Christmas music as I tell my children stories about spending the holidays with my grandparents as a child. Like with fragrances, each Christmas song immediately conjures up an image from Christmases past.

For example, now whenever I hear “I’ll Be Home for Christmas”, I think of those flights back home for the holidays during my first years in Spain. On the last leg of my flight, usually connecting through Philadelphia, I would listen to my Christmas playlist on those final 25 minutes home, starting with the Bing Crosby version of that song.

Whenever I hear the word “mistletoe” as in “some turkey and some mistletoe”, I can see the mistletoe hanging in my grandmother’s house. Whenever I sing, “later on we’ll conspire”, I think of romantic side of the holidays. When the Little Drummer Boy says that he is “a poor boy too” and that he’ll play his “best for him”, my heart — which is not religious at all — feels like a believer. And whenever I sing “our friends who are dear to us, will be near to us once more”, I always have an image of a cold and dark, yet clear night, together with my parents and siblings on our way to or from our grandparents in New York.

This year, I introduced “Silent Night” into my repertoire. Maybe it was a touch chauvinistic, but I reserved it exclusively for my one year old daughter, as the lullaby to put her to sleep. These have been my kids favorites this year:

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East West Street and MAGA

I recently finished Philippe Sands’ East West Street: On the Origins of “Genocide” and “Crimes Against Humanity” which tells the interwoven stories of the author’s own family origins in Lviv with the lives of the two central legal scholars behind the theories of genocide and crimes against humanity at the Nuremberg trials. Besides being an excellent read and reminder of the horrors in the not so distant past of European and Western culture, this story made me reflect on how MAGA (“Make America Great Again”) relates to America’s past and present, and how I now as a father relate to the Holocaust.

How Great Were We?

When we think about America at its greatest (what Tom Brokaw called the “Greatest Generation”), we think about Americans (including my grandmother’s two brothers, who were the children of immigrants) putting their lives  and resources at risk to save Europe and its minority populations from the Nazi Germany. Any time a European criticizes the U.S. or our policies, we Americans proudly remind them of the beaches of Normandy and our conviction that they owe us eternally for having acted as their savior. Furthermore, our self-image has always been fortified by the contrast between our young men fighting to save the world and the demonic, goose-stepping Nazis.

I certainly won’t deny the bravery of my ancestors and fellow countrymen and women both fighting abroad and working for the war effort at home to make the world a better place. But when we talk about the superiority of American values over say those of the Nazis – now rightly synonymous with evil – I am often reminded of what Jesse Owens had said when asked about Hitler refusing to shake his hand at the 1935 Olympics: that the U.S. president wouldn’t invite him to the White House either. Or that black soldiers returning home from the war in Europe, instead of being treated as heroes were once again assaulted by the Jim Crow South and a G.I. Bill that that  discriminated against them.

What I hadn’t realized (and it shouldn’t be a surprise) was that the U.S. team at the Nuremberg trials was staunchly opposed to prosecuting the Nazi defendants for the crime of genocide for fear that it could open the door to Americans, especially in the South, being tried for their abuse of black and Native Americans. In other words, as heroic as Americans may have been in “saving” other minority groups from tyranny abroad, our government wanted to protect its ability, under International Law, to mistreat and abuse its own citizens and minorities with impunity.

Our greatness was still tainted by our greatest shortcomings.

MAGA and Repeating History

The Nazis did not suddenly come into power one day and on the next day put all of the Jews in concentration camps where they were murdered in mass two days later. No, it was a long, slow process of instilling racist and nativist fear, followed by a series of laws that restricted movement (including entry), employment and association, attire, segregation, all leading to the ghettos, concentration camps and murder. While today in America there has been an increase in open association with white supremacist groups and an increase in open anti-Islamic discourse in private and political life, I don’t believe that the U.S. is on the path to becoming a Nazi state. Yet the similarity with the early days of the anti-Semitic propaganda is uncanny. Ultimately, a large enough chunk of German society bought into the narrative that Jews were dangerous, destructive and incompatible with German values to accept the anti-Semitic laws and then actively participate in or turn a blind eye to one of the most the disturbing massacres in modern human history.

So how easily are we today convinced that Muslims and/or Islam is the problem? How many times have we heard that we should “bomb” or “carpet bomb” an entire region or country? How many times have we heard that their culture is incompatible with our culture? And how many times have politicians and political pundits whether on TV, in print or on the internet advocated for travel bans, bans on immigrants, their attire, language, or religious practices, regardless of the fact that all of these measures violate what we celebrate as our Western values? Glenn Greenwald here gives the perfect example of how everyone was all Je Suis Charlie when Charlie was anti-Muslim but not so much when they were making fun of Texans.

So to make a long story short, the Nazis were not built in a day. Their movement started out with the same type of narrative that we are hearing today from the MAGA folks, one that popular culture has arguably already bought into. And as much as we hail the superiority of the West, the 20th Century’s greatest crimes were perpetrated in the West by a Christian people under the veil of protecting Western values.

As a Father

I have always been very conscious of the Holocaust, not in terms of a mere historical fact that you read in a text book or watch countless movies about, but as a real, concrete horror story that had an ongoing effect on the lives of people around me. As a child visiting my grandparents in the Bronx, I remember being introduced to a woman on the elevator and my grandmother asking her to show me the concentration camp tattoo on her arm. My grandmother wanted me to know what people had gone through. Then a large percentage of the kids that I grew up with had parents who were first generation Jewish Americans whose families had fled from Europe. While no one ever discussed what had happened to their family members who did not make it to America as refugees, the Holocaust was a living, breathing and evident part of their personal experience.

But now as an adult, as a husband and father of three small children, when I read East West Street or think about anything related to the horrors and desperation of trying to protect one’s family (be it from the Holocaust, Slavery, Jim Crow, or a flood in Houston or Bangladesh), I am left speechless, with nothing else to say . . .

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Three Years

August 20th was the third year anniversary of Chantal Cavé’s passing. I just looked at my calendar and saw that I had totally forgotten the day.

I have not forgotten Chantal or her loved ones who miss her dearly.

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Thunder in the Mountains and the Fourth of July

Last night on the eve of the Fourth of July, I finished Thunder in the Mountains: Chief Joseph, Oliver Otis Howard, and the Nez Perce War by Daniel J. Sharfstein. I read his previous book The Invisible Line: A Secret History of Race in America two years ago.

Sharfstein and I went to secondary school together. Not only was Sharfstein the smartest kid in class (he tutored my older, honor roll sister in calculus when she was a senior and he was a sophomore), Sharfstein was also one of the nicest kids around. Back in those days, I spent most of my time playing soccer (and probably listening to Reggae), not doing schoolwork. Nevertheless, I was fortunate enough to share two courses and interests with Dan: AP Spanish and Creative Writing. What impressed me even back then was that Dan seemed to be motivated by intellectual curiosity and not just getting the answers right. So when I read The Invisible Line twenty-five years after last seeing Dan, I was not surprised how thoughtful he was in choosing his topic or the efforts he put into his research. But when it came to Thunder in the Mountains, I was struck — almost offended even — by what an amazing narrator and storyteller Dan had become. I mean, it is one thing to be the smartest kid in class. It’s quite another to have real talent. And Bravo, Dan! You’ve got both, plus the discipline to put a book like this together. I am beyond impressed.

This morning when reading Eugene Robison in the Washington Post about the Fourth of July:

The signers of the Declaration of Independence were highly imperfect men. Thomas Jefferson and his fellow Southerners were rank hypocrites for declaring “all men are created equal” while owning men, women and children as their slaves. John Adams was sour and disputatious, and later as president would sign the Sedition Act cracking down on criticism of the government. John Hancock was accused of amassing his fortune through smuggling. Benjamin Franklin could have been described as kind of a dirty old man.

Yet they laid out a set of principles, later codified in the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, that transcended their flaws. At this bizarre moment in our history, it is useful to remember that the ideas and institutions of the American experiment are much more powerful and enduring than the idiosyncrasies of our leaders.

Thunder in the Mountains immediately came to mind as the epitome of this narrative. That constant American struggle to overcome the conflict between our most celebrated and emblematic values and our immediate economic, political and tribal interests is perfect for the Fourth of July. That is Oliver Otis Howard’s story. Howard goes from fighting for the most basic rights of life, liberty and property for certain people to fighting to deny others those same rights.

The story goes something like this. After the Civil War, Howard (for whom the university is named) became the commissioner of the Freedman’s Bureau and the face of Reconstruction, convinced that the freed slaves could participate fully in American political life. That didn’t end well.

The notion that equality would follow from emancipation—the great hope of Reconstruction— had been destroyed the moment the federal troops left the South in the mid-1870s. Through murder, fraud, beatings, and threats, white southerners, often acting in military-style terror campaigns, stripped blacks of their voting rights and trapped many in sharecropping contracts with no escape from lives of drudgery, debt, and want. Even in the North, the promise of equality had given way to a consensus steeped in white supremacy and the need for racial separation.

And just as Reconstruction failed, Howard’s reputation took a major hit. In his efforts to rebrand himself, Howard found himself in Oregon commanding the U.S. military’s campaign to expel the Nez Perce people from their land. Howard was led by his Christian conviction that the only salvation for the Nez Perce was for them to abandon their homeland and become Christian farmers on a reservation of the U.S. government’s choice.

That Americans prided themselves on religious freedom while using religion as a sword should not be shocking to anyone. Christianity became a major political force both in its benevolent and extremist manifestations. While the staunchest white abolitionists where devout Christians, Southerners were convinced that Christianity sanctioned chattel slavery and dictated Jim Crow which lasted until 1970. And the main philosophical justification for the new Americans to strip the native populations of their lands was that doing so was destined by God.

But Thunder in the Mountains is also the story of Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce. Joseph spent his lifetime both before and after the war trying to convince U.S. officials and anyone who would listen that his people deserved the same rights as White Americans, in particular the right not to be deprived of property without due process. Joseph made a lasting impact on almost every U.S. official he met, but his cause and his arguments were ultimately rejected at every turn.

This story is of two tragedies. It is the tragedy of Howard: of how the ideals of equality were first destroyed by the terrorism of others and then by his own extremist views and need for political redemption. Then it is the tragedy of Chief Joseph whose only dream was to remain on his homeland where his father was buried, and whose weapon was to appeal to Americans’ sense of justice. He never regained his land.

* * *

The beauty of the American story is that when we tell it, we can measure ourselves against that original July 4th declaration and hope at least that we are moving in the right direction.

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