Sunday, December 23, 2018

My last Christmas.

I have to be in the mood to write Christmas cards. My wife, Ellen, and I send a pile every year. To set the tone, I usually channel surf to find a cinematic classic to watch as "background music." Last  Sunday night, I glimpsed several gauzy scenes from two early film versions of Charles Dicken's novel, "A Christmas Carol." Then we settled on director, Frank Capra's, "It's a Wonderful Life."

Making my way down the list of family and friends, I couldn't help but pause a little longer at those who had lost loved ones in the last year or so. Ellen sat across from me sticking return address labels to the envelopes. Only four years ago at this time, she was just getting started on a battle with breast cancer. She survived, while two of our friends succumbed to the vicious disease. There are a growing number of widows and widowers on our Christmas list. And this year, I had to write a card to friends  who tragically lost their son two days before his college graduation. Sadly, we also have one less family card to send in 2018. Ellen's brother, Rick, died on St. Patrick's Day this year. The Christmas movie on the screen suddenly felt poignant.

Like Dicken's Ebenezer Scrooge character, George Bailey, played by the legendary Jimmy Stewart,  rediscovers the meaning of his "Wonderful Life" by confronting his mortality. Similarly, Scrooge meets three Christmas spirits in one night, including one grim spook who provides a funereal preview complete with tombstone and gravesite.

Likewise, a guardian angel steps down from heaven and dives into Bedford Falls and George Bailey's nightmare. The despondent Bailey is considering suicide because of an accidental financial crisis that threatens his reputation and freedom. Even then, the unselfish hero plunges into an icy river to save a stranger, who turns out to be his own angel, whom he thinks is drowning.  It's then that "Clarence," the simple-minded celestial being, has a winter brainstorm. Miraculously, he shows George what his community would have become had he never been born. Suddenly, the small town savings and loan officer understands everything. He prays for more time in this world. Perhaps another decade of self-sacrifice and service to neighbors who are struggling to get out of the clutches of their evil landlord in Pottersville.

Death is a powerful teacher, especially at Christmastime.

Facing their own mortality helped Scrooge and Bailey discover the truth about life. That it is temporary and yet eternal. If we choose to cling to this world we die, buried under a mountain of selfishness. If we choose to love so much we give up our lives for the good of others, we live forever.

That is the meaning of Christmas. An unconditional, vast love becomes flesh. Only to embrace a courageous death so we can live forever.

This must be why I choke up every time I watch the closing scenes of these classics from Dicken's and Capra. I can't help but see God in the characters who are redeemed by love. It puts me in the mood to write to our cherished family and friends. And reminds me, I'm running out of time with them here. So, I need to love everyone I can. Like this is my last Christmas.

Sunday, December 9, 2018

Right place. Wrong time.

In America's most dangerous communities, one step recommended for at-risk youth is to avoid social media. For example, some have been shot and even killed for their Facebook posts. Seems it's just as important to carefully choose your virtual friends as those you run with in the real world. When soldiers  die or suffer wounds because they're accidentally shot by one of their brothers, we call it "friendly fire."

Then there are those gunned down due to mistaken identify. The tragic loss of life occurs because a careless attacker fired senselessly. Some say the death toll would be much higher if young shooters were better marksmen.

The stories of random gunfire are all too common on U.S. streets and we cluck our tongues at the obvious insanity. Yet, truth be told, Americans have long been dodging long-distance assaults.

I remember the true story of labor leader, Walter P. Reuther, who in 1948 survived a shotgun blast in his own home. He was in his kitchen with his wife, when pellets burst through the window. Four lodged in his arm, one in his chest. Other stories I've heard involved angry business owners who shot up the competition's shop or a union hall because they felt unfairly targeted. The purpose was only to send a message, they allegedly said. But what if someone had been in the right place at the wrong time?

Whether the assault is a volley of commentary via electronic bursts in cyberspace or rounds fired from many feet away, the distance between attacker and the attacked allows us to shoot aimlessly.

We can debate the effectiveness of gun control in the effort to reduce violence. But without a change in our trigger-happy, vindictive natures, we will continue to count the dead and wounded, without knowing the lives that we've lost.

Saturday, November 24, 2018

Pass the compassion, please.

A  few days before Thanksgiving, a friend shared his concern about getting together with family for the  big holiday. The issue at hand was the side dish of politics that might be served up mid-meal.

Seems like many of our divided countrymen and women forget to hang up their partisan caps in the coat closet, and happily wear them to the feast dedicated to gratitude and blessings.

Even mobsters, as in the Corleone family of "The Godfather" fame, had rules about not talking "business" at the table.

Truthfully, kitchen table talk is where political campaigns are made. We should be able to respectfully share our opinions about hot topics and tough questions, at least by the time we're squirting the whipped cream onto the pie. For example, why do so many mentally ill live on our streets? That seems like appropriate conversation for the holiday season, when so many people make donations to help the suffering.

Why are so many of the homeless veterans of the U.S. armed forces? Did you know, the Veterans Administration routinely visits street villages under overpasses and at other make-shift shelters to conduct a census of vets? It's true. How do we support these troops?

Why do so many of our houses of worship restrict meals for the homeless to Thanksgiving and the holidays when we know they're hungry and in need of help all year long?

That's a conversation worthy of any holiday table. Season's Greetings!

Sunday, November 18, 2018

The space between humanity and insanity

The hot lather hit the back of my neck marking the beginning of the end of my monthly grooming. My barber, Mike, glided the straight razor through the foam, slicing hairs closer than any clippers could. I conjured up retro images of groomers striking blade to strap to sharpen the edge that would clean a week-long growth off the cheeks of hard-working dude, a guy's guy, grabbing a Saturday afternoon shave and cut before his weekly bath. It took steady hands to manipulate the razor without leaving bloody nicks.

Though I sat up a little straighter yesterday, because the conversation at the barbershop had gone to a frightening place. One guy mentioned a friend who slipped into a coma after his girlfriend stabbed him near the clavicle, above his heart. They had been at a party. Another patron, waiting for his trim spoke up as he recalled a couple of college buddies who accidentally got into a "sword fight." Seems one roomie was showing his pirate blade to the other and stabbed him in the side. It was unintentional but the swashbuckler spent a month in jail because he couldn't pay restitution to his roommate for drawing blood.

I couldn't help but recall a kid I met this summer who was stabbed in his neighborhood. He didn't share much about his story except, "I was stabbed yesterday." He had bandages on both arms.

In America's debate about guns, there is one, undeniable truth -- some people are irrationally violent. And firearms are our weapon of choice. According to, in 2017, over 10,000 were shot to death in the U.S. People armed with handguns killed more than 7,000 of those. Compare that to nearly 1,600 who died in stabbings.

My take is, to kill someone with a knife, you have to get close. Razor close. Guns can help make murder impersonal, rapid and very efficient, especially automatic weapons.

There is no doubt that a madman or woman can murder with the even the most primitive objects. Over 460 died from blunt force trauma inflicted with clubs and hammers. Our best bet to stop the mayhem is changing the hearts and minds of those who could step through that hair-splitting space that separates humanity from insanity.

Only love can do that.

Saturday, November 10, 2018

Reliving the trauma

I failed to write a blog last weekend for a good reason. Actually 90 reasons. Our family gathered in Detroit to celebrate my mother's 90th birthday.

After a joyful celebration with 16 of her 17 great-grandkids dancing around the rented hall, we joined our matriarch for a service at her church. At the end of Mass, the priest paused to acknowledge Irene Stepien's milestone. Stepping forward toward her seat in the middle of the front pew, he asked, "How does it feel to be 90? I'm sure you've seen so much over all those years."

"Yes!" she replied. "I lived through the war and German occupation in Poland."

"You lived through the war and occupation," the clergyman repeated her words so the rest of the congregation could hear them. Then he prayed a  beautiful blessing.

Of all the things Mom chose to share in that brief moment, she recalled World War II and the Nazis taking control of her country. I grew up listening to her stories about the terror of soldiers invading her family home. She ran through the family farm fields as bullets whizzed past her head. Mom was only ten when war broke out. Once, she even escaped from the Gestapo. My late father had similar memories. Like the German soldier who shoved the barrel of a submachine gun under Dad's chin. Another guy pushed his Luger into the back of Dad's head to encourage him to work for the invading forces.

It's hard to forget the trauma of wanton violence. For survivors of the Holocaust, the memories are searing. You have to wonder about American kids who grow up enduring drive-by gunfire, street crime and the murder of neighbors and even friends. How do they cope with a war that never ends? It changes their perception of safety and rewires their brains and bodies with fear.

Imagine you escape a massacre in your school. One where a madman uses a military-style weapon to slaughter your classmates. How could you forget?

"Now you gotta take a test in a bulletproof vest. Scared to death that you might get shot," croons country singer, Kane Brown, in his new song, "American Bad Dream."

But it's not a dream. It's a real-world nightmare. And for many, an unshakeable memory they'll relive as long as they number their days. Even if the survive nearly a century.  Happy birthday, Mom.

Sunday, October 28, 2018

Lord have mercy.

From time to time, I'll see a post on social media or receive an email poking fun at safety for kids. You know the one that says baby boomers grew up without wearing bike helmets, batting helmets, mouth guards and safety belts while running our neighborhoods unsupervised until the street lights came out. Yet we survived.

On the other hand, back then, we never considered training our teachers to pack heat in order to protect us from mayhem. Nor did our houses of worship hire security forces to watch the front and back doors for gunmen. We didn't wonder if someone in the theater would open fire with an automatic weapon during the double feature. The action was on the screen or at the candy counter.

There is no safety gear to protect a child or adult from the kind of trauma that occurred at the synagogue in Pittsburgh yesterday, where a gunman slaughtered 11 congregants and injured two police SWAT team members. Police said the shooter was armed with an assault rifle and three handguns. This was a hate crime against Jews. Coincidentally, next month will mark 80 years since Kristallnacht, "the night of the broken glass," November 9, 1938. Nazi's rioted in Germany and massacred nearly 100 Jews while they damaged their synagogues, businesses and homes. World War II and the Holocaust were brewing and about boil over.

Hatred always fuels mass murder. And because our media has become ubiquitous, we see it vividly displayed daily. I wouldn't dare compare my childhood to the insanity kids are exposed to in these times. The tragedy is, we boomers can't muster the courage to do something constructive about the madness. As children, we watched our nation send men to walk on the moon. But today, America, with all its financial power and ingenuity is unable or unwilling to solve this threat for our grandchildren and our neighbors.  So now, hatred, armed to the teeth, invades the places we pray, again and again. Lord have mercy.


Sunday, October 21, 2018

The nudge of an angel

I woke up bleary eyed Saturday but I needed to start earlier than usual to make my appointment. Before I put on my glasses, I checked the text on my phone. It was my cousin's wife sending me a picture of their son. He stood in military uniform, beaming alongside his army buddy. The scene was Camp Fuji, Japan. The two men smiled through tall grasses with the majestic, snow-capped mountain in the background. After training, they're headed to South Korea.

My cousin and his wife worry about their son daily. My best friend's son is in the U.S. Army Special Forces and another friend of ours has a son in army intelligence, deployed overseas. Those parents are living with one eye and ear on their phones and hoping no uniformed visitors come knocking at the doors.

Other mothers and fathers are praying tonight for sons and daughters confronting trouble at every turn. Lord, help them find a way to stand up to the pressure. Pass up the offers to make that easy money, selling drugs. Give them the courage to put down the handgun, or refuse to pick it up. Turn down that ride with the gang bent of revenge.

Whether your child is a role model or at-risk of becoming a statistic, parents worry ... and pray for grace and the gentle, swift nudge of their guardian angels.