Dr. Joe

The Lovers of Valadro

Thoughts from Dr. Joe
They died young, probably during late adolescence. However by the looks of it, they were in love. Two 6,000-year-old prehistoric skeletons from the Neolithic period were found locked in an eternal embrace in Valdaro, near Verona, Italy, hidden from the eyes of humanity. It could be the oldest love story. Verona is where Shakespeare set the star-crossed lover’s tale “Romeo and Juliet.” Incidentally Verona is the same area where Giuseppe Verdi set the opera Rigoletto, the story of doomed lovers.

Archeologists believe the find has more emotional than scientific value. The lovers were adolescents of the Neolithic age, a formative period in the evolutionary development of society. It was during the Neolithic era when religious, societal and emotional sentiments were formed, particularly relative to family and village. Thus scientists and anthropological experts assert that the lovers’ embrace with arms and legs leave little doubt that their final connection was born out of deep sentiment.

The remarkable story of the Lovers of Valdaro aligns with the aurora of love. Although we compose music, write love songs, prose and love stories we hardly scratch the surface attempting to intellectualize love’s phenomenology. Subsequently we encapsulate its mystery in story and wonder. For example the speculation over the prehistoric lovers of Valdaro has intrigued the academic and scientific communities. Who were they? How did they die? You’d think by the way they were found they suffered the same fate of Romeo and Juliette!

Nearly every month of the year holds a celebration or observance to some ancient ritual or feast. But February, least favored by the gods was in need of a special saint. Here was an unexpected opportunity to celebrate mythic love attempting to explain the attraction of the Lovers of Valdaro.

This scene depicting love’s intrigue is prone for a miracle. Saint Valentine is there and takes tenderness to heart and soothes sadness with generous applications of hope springing eternal. The patron saint of love is human and understands sadness and sorrow associated with loneliness. He brings Hope! Who else is best skilled to ease our loneliness? St. Valentine, and his first sergeant, Cupid, cardiac specialist extraordinaire, effortlessly mends those stinging moments of longing. Whatever we can’t understand we drown in mythology!

The fable of love associated by arrows typically capable of piercing hearts with a secret potion could not be any more dramatic. Heartache mended by a box of chocolate! But then, how else can our bleeding hearts survive? How could we possibly understand the message given to us by the Lovers of Valdaro? Anything less dramatic would not do justice to the mystery of love. If the world exists relative to whether love is gained or lost, it can only be through the alchemy of mythic characters who show no fear for the gentlest and strongest of all emotions, those of the heart.

What I find remarkable is that when Shakespeare’s characters Romeo and Juliette walked the countryside of Verona, the Lovers of Valdaro had been cemented in their embrace for almost 4,500 years. 6,000 years ago our evolution as cognitive beings was suspect at best. Nevertheless people felt the compulsivity to be together. I appreciate the beautiful myths that surround this mystery; they’re all different, yet their message is the same.

I remain fixated by the last embrace of the Lovers of Valdaro. Their deathlike grip sheds little understanding relative to the mystery of love. However if you observe them you’ll realize that love is eternal and innate in humanity, and if we should find love we are blessed. Happy Valentine’s Day!

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Channeling Father Flynn

Thoughts from Dr. Joe
I first came face to face with Father Flynn in 1957; I was in the 5th grade. I had to answer for the D’s Sister Mary Judith gave me in behavior. Father told me I would hang from the flagpole at Saint Frances of Rome if I were to continue such antics. For the rest of that fall, I was his indentured servant.

My servitude continued well after the fifth grade. I became his eyes and ears in the neighborhood, his muscle, and prosecuted his will in a tough Italian/Irish neighborhood in the Northeast Bronx. I was conscripted for life and couldn’t break the hold he had on me. Although Father Flynn has passed, I am linked to his memory.

He was the reincarnation of Saint Ignatius Loyola and Genghis Khan. Saint Ignatius was a soldier before he found the Jesuits; Father served with the China Marines prior to ordination. It was rumored he became a priest to atone for the mayhem he cause growing up Hell’s Kitchen and what he did to the Japanese in the war. He was shrouded in mystery; that’s what made him an enigma.

You might recall that over the 10 years I’ve been writing “Thoughts from Dr. Joe,” I have told numerous stories about Father Flynn. He’s choked me out, threatened me, bashed me against a wall, threw me out of the Boy Scouts prior to my Eagle Court, and wrote me incessantly when I was in Vietnam. He coined the phase ‘tough love’ long before it became a popular euphemism in today’s vernacular. Father is the central character in my book, “12 Stories from the Block.”

A few weeks ago Kaitzer and I were attending the Kiwanis Christmas party. I had the pleasure of speaking with Diane Restivo, the wife of my buddy Al. Diane is a homegirl’ from the neighborhood in the Bronx. We reminisced and found that our lives crossed paths when we were kids. Diane and Al were married in my church, Saint Frances of Rome. What a small world! “Who performed the marriage,” I asked. Diane didn’t recall but said that the priest had an angry disposition.

“It was Father Flynn,” I said. They weren’t sure. Later that week I received an attachment of their marriage certificate. It was signed by Father John J. Flynn. I starred at his signature. I never knew his first name was John! To me it was Father. I wondered what the J’ stood for.

A few days later I received an attached picture of their wedding. There was Father Flynn standing with his back to the alter wearing his black coke bottle glasses looking as menacing as ever. Once again our eyes met. “How you doing Father,” I mumbled.

I know what made him special. He would stop at nothing to save his boys from the inevitable fate that waited for them on the streets. He was a conspicuous personality with an unflinching perspective of right and wrong. He held kids accountable and if he had to choke you to do so, he would do it. It was tough love and sometimes it was very tough love. But it was always unconditional. Unfortunately his ways are a thing of the past but it was great growing up under his watch and knowing that Father Flynn had your back.

The last time I saw Father was during the Bicentennial of the Statue of Liberty in 1986. We met for drinks at Corrigan’s Bar on 237th street. He was excited about his new assignment, teaching at Saint Patrick’s Seminary in Maynooth, Ireland. It was getting late; I had to catch the red eye out of JFK. How could I leave this man who had forgiven my darkest sins?

“Father! I’ll come see you next summer. He smiled because you couldn’t fool Father Flynn.

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Lessons From The 300

Thoughts from Dr. Joe

I enjoy the periodic notes I receive from my readers; it’s nice to know that someone appreciates my thoughts. Recently I received a question from a reader, “Dr. Joe, I read the poem Thermopylae by Constance Cavafy you used as a literary reference. I didn’t get it!” I fired off a reply, “Read me next week,” I said.

Thermopylae is one of two favorite poems of mine. The other is Ithaca, also by Cavafy. I am guilty! I reference them often. Both, in their own way possess the secret of life. Asking a question about poetry is like asking for the time of day and then being told how to build a clock.

I often experience the phenomenon déjà when a thought or place seems much too familiar. To have lived many lives and to realize there are many more to come is an attractive perspective from which to judge life’s messages. Reincarnation offers a hint relative to the miracle of déjà vu.

To understand the poem you first have to understand history. When boyhood’s fire was in my blood, 
I read of ancient free men 
in Greece where 300 Spartans guarded the pass Thermopylae. I had this uncanny feeling that I was there with King Leonidas of Sparta defending the pass against Xerxes’ Immortals.

There is a myriad of meaningful thoughts strategically placed within Cavafy’s verse.

“Honor to those who in the life they lead define and guard a Thermopylae.
Never betraying what is right, consistent and just in all they do,
but showing pity also, and compassion;
Generous when they’re rich, and when they’re poor, still generous in small ways, still helping as much as they can;
Always speaking the truth, yet without hating those who lie.
And even more honor is due to them 
when they foresee (as many do foresee) 
that Epilates will turn up in the end, and that the Medes will break through after all.”

Thermopylae is about courage and honor exhibited in one of the greatest stories ever told and validates those who fought heroically to the end even knowing that they were doomed. Theirs is a unique sense of honor.

Thermopylae defines the heroic life and is metaphorically linked to that which brings meaning and depth to our lives. Living the heroic life thus becomes our guide. What is your Thermopylae? How do you define it? Perhaps these are salient questions to be answered in 2014.

In its brevity, Thermopylae reminds us to stick to our guns and live a life that’s meaningful and principled. Its messages about honor and loyalty, the qualities a soldier should possess are of essence.

Cavafy takes us away from the battle and tells us to be consistent to rightfulness, to be compassionate and generous no matter our circumstance, and be truthful in all that we do. We are told not hate those who don’t live by the same principles or who wrong us for we should not begrudge them their own perspectives. He’s defining the heroic life through another dimension.

The final lines tell us that life has setbacks and potential for failure. Epilates was the goat herder who betrayed the Spartans by leading the Persians/Medes through an old trail, which allowed the latter to encircle and outflank the defenders. The Spartans knew they had no chance, but they stayed and fought anyway.

More honor is due to them 
when they foresee… that Epilates will turn up in the end, and that the Medes will break through after all.

No matter how noble a life is lived, no one can ultimately prevent the Greek traitor, Epilates enabling the Medes to break through. We all have our Thermopylae and to live a life of honor we guard it! Cavafy tells us that in the heroic life we soldier on as the Spartans did.

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Pondering the New Year!

Thoughts from Dr. Joe
I have mixed feelings about the New Year; I’m not very celebratory. The ending of the old and the beginning of the new brings mixed regrets. What once was is no longer. It’s like sitting with your best girl watching a shadow run across the prairie and lose itself in a Nebraska sunset. The sadness lies in the inability to return and do it again. Happiness is simple as a glass of chocolate but it’s often followed by a new sorrow. Poet, Percy Shelley says, “Our sweetest songs are those of saddest thought.”

This time of year I am overwhelmed by a million thoughts. Maybe it’s the solemnity of the season or perhaps according to the poet, Cavafy the Laistrygonians and Cyclops have somehow entered my soul.

But life is happenstance and often gives you what you need. Consequently I found solace in the photography of one of my former students, Ani Gemalmazyan. Her images, still life portraits of the ending year, captures the simple beauty of the transient nature of life. I looked at her photographs and realized that we’re just passing though. We’re here for a second and then gone the next. I looked deeper into her photography and it became evident that the secret to the inevitability of our collective fate lies in the moment.

I’m no expert but I bet you a buck that contentment lays in the momentary appreciation of what we have. We should probably stop there! Life is best lived… simply. You’ll go crazy trying to figure out the meaning of things. The Buddha implies our struggle to find meaning with the world is senseless. Buddhism asserts “Life has no inherent meaning; it’s up to us to bring meaning to life.” The question we should seek is not one of understanding but what will we leave that makes the world significant.

Ani and I spoke at length and somehow our conversation reverted to a simple poem by Robert Frost, “Nothing Gold Can Stay.” Her photographs are reflective of his verse and symbolic of the approaching New Year, “Out with the old and in with the new.”

Frost wrote… “Nature’s first green is gold… Her hardest hue to hold… He early leaf’s a flower… But only so an hour… Then leaf subsides to leaf… So Eden sank to grief… So dawn goes down to day… Nothing gold can stay.”

Robert Frost was brilliant he had a knack of summing up the whole world in a few elegant lines. It’s about beginnings and endings. Gold is a metaphor for youth and beauty. And like the gold of King Midas, the gold in these verses, the joy of youth and beauty can never last. The poem depicts when the promise of perfection subsides. If you’ve ever seen the golden buds of a birch tree in early spring, or the hues of a sunrise, or even fallen in and out of love, you know that nothing gold can stay. The rosy glow of newness is beautiful but unfortunately fleeting.

Felix Culpa! The mythical Latin saying describes how a series of unfortunate events eventually leads to a happier outcome. Although leaves go from gold to flower to green and then wither and die, so do we. Life begins again! However, during this transient process, we fill the void and can appreciate the small miracles that come our way.

I paused a moment finding respite from the laborious keys of my computer and noticed a beautiful child ordering a hot chocolate from Angel, a barista at Starbucks. “Do you want whip cream,” Angel inquired? “Yes please,” she said! Angel handed the girl a hot chocolate where-by the child’s face exploded in delight. Maybe it was time I heed my own philosophy. Walt Whitman says, “Why, who makes much of a miracle? 
 As to me I know of nothing else but miracles…” Happy New Year!

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Thoughts from Dr. Joe

I’ve been a teacher since Christ was a corporal, and that’s a long time. After every class, I write my students a letter analyzing the salient points of the lecture. My students call them the ‘stay gold’ letters. I’m told they’ve become collectors’ items.

Graduation is upon us; subsequently I thought I’d write a stay gold letter to the graduates.

The brashness of youth is intoxicating and its beguiling nature compels one to remember younger days. It’s a right of passage; beginning the process of going from crayons to perfume. Falling into the future is life’s most consummate adventure.

Kindly pass these thoughts on to a graduating.

Being a senior is ‘Golden,’ the world is unfolding exponentially. You are empowered by a physicality that makes the impossible, probable. You’ve inherited the earth and everything in it. You are overwhelmed by a sense of freedom, and for a short time this autonomy has little accountability. In the mirror there’s vibrancy and your identity is an image of you unfolding. How lucky you are, the universe has just whispered its secrets in your ear.

But you’re not yet a finished product. Your story is not yet written. Maturity is to create oneself, endlessly. Here’s a hint, you have a divine heritage and are here for noble purposes. Find it! That’s your passion. So what will your story be?

Set sail with little fear as you leave safe harbors for distant ports. What treasures will you find? The first place to look is within. You are Achilles, invincible, for you still believe that nothing is impossible to a valiant heart. Remember! Do, as Achilles didn’t, watch your heel.

The friendships that you have nurtured have reached a heightened sense of connection. Together you are given one last hoorah before you go your separate ways. Mom and dad remain your major source of support and as you fall deeper into life, don’t forget them along the way. Your family is your anchor.

You’ve paid your dues…or so you think. Have fun, be frivolous, cast your fate to the wind, and shout at the moon. The force is with you! Be aware of what you experience, awareness brings appreciation. It’s a part of being gold. Don’t ever be gold and not know that you are. But this will be your fate; it was mine.

You will never pass this way again; so…don’t let it slip away. Robert Frost’s poem, “Nothing Can Stay Gold” warns: “Nature’s first green is gold…Her hardest hue to hold…Her early leaf’s a flower…but only so an hour…So dawn goes down today… Nothing gold can stay.”

But the poets tell us that that we can stay golden! In their poetry, they have left us directions. Never lose the perspective of hope for it is the ingredient that assures a composing life. Hold on to a sense of wonder for wonder precedes all vision. Don’t become too sophisticated that you lose your ability to believe. Without belief possibility will not exist. Take each day as a blessing because the less of life you take for grated the more of life you will experience. Have faith! Faith is multidimensional for it begins in you and ends in the heavens.

Never, ever, ever, fear failure. Failure is a great teacher. It defines character. So don’t look for the easy path, put yourself in situations that evoke your highest nature. You will find more about yourself as you go along. Be tenacious, don’t quit, and don’t sell out. “Thrust against pain, pain is the purifier.”

Say yes to love, and if love should fail, remember, bitterness and the need to be right make you old before your time.

My high school seniors passing to the future, you probably think these thoughts are about you, don’t you? You’re so vain! But that’s your gift. Staying gold has nothing to do with being young. If you believe in second chances, then the greatest discovery is that we can change our life by changing our attitude.

Stay gold,
Dr. Joe

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