Category Archives: Parenthood

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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Twenty Years

I dug up this old photo from twenty years ago. It’s of the same view that Mr. Trump would have had at his inauguration this January as he looked over the Washington DC Mall from the Capitol. Every time I’d read about the crowd size controversy, I’d think about that photo from a time when I was still living in my hometown.

Twenty years ago it was 1997. The English Patient had just won the Oscars, and Titanic was out in theaters. Notorious B.I.G., whose songs “Hypnotize” and “Mo Money, Mo Problems” were hits that year, had just been murdered. And it was the year that Mother Theresa and Princess Di would die.

I was finishing my second and entering my third year of law school. Bill Clinton was a few years older than I am now, and Monica Lewinsky was a few years younger than I was then. In a matter of months scandal would break.

Twenty years ago, a president had to lie about smoking pot and about consensual sex with an intern, long before a president could openly say inhaling was the point or another one could brag about being able to grab a woman by her private parts without her consent.

Twenty years ago, Donald Trump was getting ready for his second divorce and was about to “move on” Melania. The Twin Towers were still standing in Lower Manhattan and no one had heard of Bin Laden. George W. Bush was not yet president and hundreds of thousands of Iraqis who were alive under a local dictator had not yet lost their lives to an American democracy. It would be a decade before the U.S. had its first black president or female presidential nominee.

In 1997, I was a few years away from my first cellphone, Apple still hadn’t made its comeback, and I got my email from AOL on a

desktop computer with a firm “you’ve got mail”. I made mix tapes, was building my CD collection, and apparently dedicated a lot of time to my hair.

Later that year, the Buena Vista Social Club soundtrack was released, with its stellar roster of vintage Cuban musicians, including the great Omara Portuando singing:

Si las cosas que uno quiere
Se pudieran alcanzar
Tú me quisieras lo mismo
Que veinte años atrás

[If the things that we wished for
Were ever attainable
Then you would love me the same
As you did 20 years ago]

Twenty years ago, I had no idea where and to whom my life would take me. Twenty years later, on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean, I wake up in the middle of the night to someone crying in the next room. I look at my wife sleeping next to me. I walk past my baby girl breathing softly, past my middle child snoring, to my eldest who’s calling for Daddy, and Daddy is me. A wife and three kids. A family. People I didn’t know or who didn’t exit twenty years ago. Who would have thought all this was possible in just twenty years and at such a young age?

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The End of Innocence

My six year son is having regular, recurring nightmares. Even before he falls asleep, he tells me that he is scared because he doesn’t want to have “bad dreams”. Normally when I ask, he says he doesn’t remember them, but yesterday morning he snuggled next to me on the sofa and said, “Daddy, I know what my bad dreams are about. War.”

It all started last month when his class began studying Picasso’s Guernica. He was fascinated about the painting, especially because his book on Picasso said the painting was bigger than a soccer goal (and my son is obsessed with soccer). But one night before going to bed, he asked me why planes were bombing the town of Guernica and what happened to the people when they were bombed, especially the kids his age. I did my best to say that the war happened a long time ago.

He then said, “Daddy, what was World War II?” which he only knew about because according to his book it is when Picasso lived in Paris. I told him that it was a war that happened mainly in Europe a long time ago. When he asked if Grandpa was alive then, I explained that his great grandmother (who is still alive today) had two brothers who fought in the war and that one of them was awarded the special Purple Heart medal.

My great uncles were first generation Italian Americans, who like many first generation immigrants were the first to be drafted and sent to war. I didn’t get into details, but here is an extract from a short piece about the one who was wounded (not the one in the photo):

In 1942, as a very young man, Ralph was drafted into the U.S. Army 441st Auto-motored Weapons Co. His first time out of the Metro New York area was for Basic Training at Camp Stewart, Georgia. From Georgia, his world travels began in earnest with his unit being deployed to Africa. Ralph and his army unit then became part of the Allied Forces that invaded southern Italy in 1943. Ralph became a member of the four-man team half-track crew, which housed a twin 50 caliber machine gun. Ralph’s unit then moved from Sicily to Anzio, where they joined Patton’s 5th Army.

As the 5th Army proceeded next to Rome, Ralph was very seriously wounded and left on the battlefield for dead. By some stroke of very good fortune, Ralph’s cousin happened upon him and carried him to the medic station. From there, he was taken to a hospital in Naples for the start of his treatment. Ralph Perrotta was awarded a Purple Heart, during his stay at the Naples hospital. He was enrolled in the National Purple Heart Hall of Honor in recognition of exceptional sacrifice in defense of the U.S.

My son then wanted me to confirm that the war was a long time ago and that there were no longer wars or bombings. I told him honestly, yet gently that there are still some wars in the world, in particular one in Syria. He then asked if in Syria they bombed at night time and where the kids would go during the bombing.

I lied and said that the children were safe and that Syria was far away. But Syria is not far away, the kids are not safe, no one is safe, and no one can say that wars like the brutal civil war in Spain or the world war shortly thereafter won’t threaten my children in their lifetime. Certainly I cannot imagine what it was like for my uncles to be sent off to Italy to fight in a war, ironically they didn’t believe in (at the time many Americans, especially anti-communists like my great-grandfather, were very much against U.S. intervention in Europe).

Maybe it’s the man we now have in the White House, his utter disregard for the world order and all décor, the fact that on the other side of the Mediterranean, a horrendous war continues and that when a fire spreads, there is likely nowhere to hide – but I feel like I am losing the fatherly innocence that the world will be safe for my children. If my child is terrified by the 80 year old painting of a war, I cannot begin to imagine the life of a Syrian child or parent today.

* * *

A few weeks later, my sister and niece came to visit us in Madrid, and my son was very excited to go the Reina Sofa Museum with them to see the Guernica. “Daddy, it’s bigger than a soccer goal!” But when we were just turning the corner into the large room that holds the painting, my son began to cry and say that he was too scared to see it. After fifteen minutes of back and forth, I finally convinced him to take a look. He loved the painting, especially its size. It’s funny because I never thought much of the Guernica, but it is a real testament to Picasso’s art that 80 years later, his painting – which was intended to depict the horrors of war – can have such a profound impact on a child.

About the same time, Audi premiered its Super Bowl commercial about how girls face greater challenges than boys. I have two boys and a newborn baby girl. Until that commercial – even though I considered myself very conscious of the disparate treatment of women in society, I had never given a thought to the fact that the little girl before me would face a different reality to that of my sons. Who said art no longer has an impact?

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Give Me One More Thanksgiving Holiday

Charlie and EvelynEvery year since I started this blog, at this time of year I always eagerly write about how excited I am with the coming Christmas season. And today being Black Friday, I can now officially start playing my Christmas favorites and decorating the house.

And as much as I love Christmas, I think that if I had one wish. If I could ask for anything in the world. There is nothing that I would want more than to take my wife and son along with, say 30 years back, to spend just one Thanksgiving holiday with my grandparents just like I did as a child.

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What is White Privilege?

Ferguson Police NYT 2

In a very insightful interview in today’s New York Times about race in America, Naomi Zack explains that asking yourself what the Michael Brown case has to do with you, that is White Privilege:

Not fearing that the police will kill your child for no reason isn’t a privilege. It’s a right.  But I think that is what “white privilege” is meant to convey, that whites don’t have many of the worries nonwhites, especially blacks, do. I was talking to a white friend of mine earlier today. He has always lived in the New York City area. He couldn’t see how the Michael Brown case had anything to do with him. I guess that would be an example of white privilege.

Of course, I don’t live in the U.S. anymore, but if I did, I don’t think my fear would be the police shooting my son (but maybe the All American psycho), and that is White Privilege.

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12 Years in Chamberí

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Back in late spring 2008 just as I was reaching my apartment in the Madrid neighborhood of Chamberí, I noticed a strange looking vehicle driving down my street. As it got closer I saw that it was the Google Maps car. I stopped and stared it down, hoping to be immortalized on Google Maps street view. And sure enough, a few months later, there I was. At least until very recently. Google has recently refreshed its Madrid street view and I am no longer standing at the door.

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Coincidentally, just as my virtual tenure on Google Maps has come to an end, so have my 12 years in Chamberí. Tomorrow we move to a new address.

It all started back in June 2000. I had been working in Washington, DC at a small boutique law firm specializing in environmental law. I enjoyed the work and city, but quite out of the blue – and against my will – I was becoming one of the few experts on the regulation of nutrient pollution in man-made water bodies (for those who care, Section 303(d) of the Clean Water Act). However that may sound – exciting or excruciating – I was in my late 20s and didn’t want to be typecast so early in my career. In other words, the time was ripe to make a change. I chose to move to Madrid where I had close friends and a plan: do an MBA at Instituto de Empresa right when European business schools were taking a giant leap in competitiveness vis-à-vis their American counterparts.

So, in the Spring of 2000, I co-published an article entitled “Politics, Pollution and TMDLs: New Directions in Point and Nonpoint Source Liability for Watershed Restoration” in a now long-defunct trade magazine that no one ever read, and by summer I had quit my job , moved to Spain and the rest was history.

While looking for an apartment in Madrid, I moved in with an old friend and his then girlfriend in Chamberí. It took me two months – during which his girlfriend didn’t know which one of us to strangle – until I finally found a nice apartment in the very pijo Salamanca neighborhood.

But after one year in Salamanca and just as my MBA was coming to its end, my landlord – taking advantage of the end of Peseta – was in a rush to sell off the apartment, and I was left homeless. I had no idea whether I was going to stay in Madrid or move back to DC, but I needed some time. My friend who I had stayed with in Chamberí had just broken up with his girlfriend and – against what you would imagine – encouraged me to move in with her and help out with the rent until I could figure my next move. To make a long story short, she ended up taking a job in Barcelona, and I took over the management of the MBA program I had just graduated from along with her apartment.

That was 12 years ago.

In the meantime, I became a fixture in my neighborhood. I have my vegetable market, butcher, cheese guy and fish monger. I do the vast majority of my shopping locally. And when I walk down the street, everyone says hello and knows my name. It helps that my son was born at the hospital down the street, and all of the old ladies want to play with my curly-haired little boy.

While living in this house, I married, changed jobs three or four times. I have gotten good news and I have gotten bad news, and as mentioned, our son was born. I have watched as the local kids were born and grew up, and I have seen my neighbors grow old and pass away. I once even saw a neighbor begging for money in the metro.

And isn’t that what is so special about living in a city? In the U.S., we don’t really have cities. By cities I mean a place where people of all ages and classes live in the same buildings, walk the same streets and buy their groceries in the same stores. In Chamberí, I have had all of these: the old ladies, babies, teenagers, immigrants in the cheaper interior apartments and the bourgeoisie with their balconies. And of course, outside you see beggars and drunks. You are exposed to all faces of humanity.

But now after 12 years, it’s time to move on. We’re moving within walking distance to where my son will start school in September. And we are very excited to move to a bigger, more comfortable space. Nonetheless, while it is technically still within the city (and definitely a far cry from the American suburban life), we will lose my querida Chamberí barrio lifestyle.

Twelve years. That may be the longest time I have ever lived at one address. Almost as long as the house where I grew up. I don’t feel anything close the attachment I feel for my childhood home, but I will definitely cherish its place in my life.

Goodbye to 12 years in Chamberí.

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Me, Myself, and I

modigliani boyWhen I was growing up, I never looked anything like my father. Everywhere I went, everyone would say, “you look just like your mother”.  To which I – thinking I was clever – would respond, “no, she looks just like me.”

I remember back in sixth grade science class when we were studying genetics and DNA, we were supposed to make a chart showing what features we got from each of our parents. I had my mother’s blond hair and blues eyes, and both of my parents were tall, but I still needed to list something I got just from my father. When I asked my father, a physician, what physical characteristic I had inherited from him – and only him – his scientific response was my maleness. You can only imagine the look on my teacher’s face when I told the entire class of twelve year olds what feature my father had bestowed on me. Of course, I was insightful enough to have qualified my answer as having come from a medical professional.

A few decades later it really didn’t affect me at all when my son was born with a startling resemblance to his mother’s family, save for his cleft chin. He has dark, chocolate eyes, curly hair, and lush lips. I don’t need my child to look like me, and to be honest, he is probably better off looking like his mother. But, no matter how much I observe both his physical characteristics and his gestures, I simply do not see myself in him.

Nevertheless, when I look at myself in the mirror, and I can’t pinpoint exactly what is that I see, I always see him in my reflection, staring back at me.

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