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 Read more

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 Read more

Thoughts from Dr. Joe

Finding Shakespeare in La Canada

I had the lead role in the fifth grade Saint Patrick’s Play at Saint Frances.  But my career ended when I threw Thomas Thouey off the stage for saying something nasty about my momma.  I could have been a Shakespearian actor but I was banned from the stage and regulated to the stage crew.

As a boy I had a passion for theater.  I would purchase standing room at the Broadway on West 53rd and see Westside Story over and over. The magical theater possesses a myriad of worlds.  I could create any fantasy and be anything as long as I could imagine it.  Theatrics is a composite of every emotion, sound, and gesture with a language that resonates life.

Shakespeare is the quintessence of the theater.  He has written 38 plays, 154 sonnets, and numerous poems.  He has added over 3,000 words to the English Language.  His words and quotes are commonplace in our daily vernacular and contemporary writers mimic his creations.  His depiction of drama and use of language is unparalleled. By reading his prose I am fearful of the dread of death and beguiled by the allure of love.  Shakespeare grabs your emotions and leaves them in your throat rendering an aficionado spellbound and speechless. 

Last month one of my former students, Bianca Saleebyan invited me to Shakespearience, a production of the Theatrical Education Group.   I attended as a chaperone for Susan Moore’s 10th grade LCHS English class.  I was enthralled by the production value and the direction of Justin Eick, Chairman of the Visual and Performing Arts department at LCHS.  Of course I had to meet Justin.

“Justin,” I said!  “Why am I drawn to Shakespearian Theater?”  He replied, “In his plays we experience the depth of human emotion, the highest love and the deepest depravity. Shakespeare told stories of star-crossed lovers and ambitions kings in a compelling, dramatic, and timeless fashion,” he said.

La Canada High School has a treasure trove of artistic talent.  Justin is part of this treasure. He possesses a Master’s in Fine Arts from Carnegie Mellon in Pittsburgh and from Moscow Art Theater School.  His credentials are impeccable but I am drawn to him because of his passion.  Art is only art when it stirs our emotions. Justin had me enthralled.

He explained, “Acting has enhanced my life; it enables me to explore the full extent of my imagination. It is the unbridled imagination of an actor that creates art.”

Justin brought clarity to Shakespeare by explaining that his stories are derived from the classics.  Ovid’s Metamorphoses completed in AD 8 evolved into Romeo and Juliet and A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Similarly, Westside Story is a recreation of Romeo and Juliette, and the movie When Harry Met Sally evolved from The Taming of the ScrewLion King characters Timon and Pumbaa parallel Rosencrantz and Guildenstern from Hamlet.  Shakespeare has influenced the way we speak and think and his masterpieces inspire contemporary art.    

Justin is the artistic director for Shakespearience.  His direction creates a contemporary approach to Shakespeare enhancing his appeal to teenage audiences.  The character, Puck played by Jeremy Gurkin narrates the adventures of the acting troupe as they stage a series of scenes from Shakespeare’s most famous plays. Gurkin, a comic genius uses lazzis’, interludes to stage the various scenes there-by tying the stories together and creating a play within a play.    

My conversation with Justin unfortunately ended.  I didn’t have a chance to ask him if I could play Mark Anthony in Julius Caesar.  I dream of invoking Caesar’s spirit and avenging his death. With a Shakespearian dialect I would speak, “Cry Havoc! And let slip the dogs of war.”     







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Trivializing Leadership

The other night the girls and I were sitting around the dinner table; they were doing all the laughing.  They were in stitches describing some of the campaign speeches used by their peers in the pursuit for student office/leadership.  I starred at the girls with a deadpan face cause I saw no humor in their rants.

Unbeknownst to me there is a distinct methodology for gaining office in student government at the high school.  You got to be funny and you got to be popular.

I have a different take on what necessitates one’s aspirations toward leadership.    It was only through an act of Congress that I became an officer in the Marines. It wasn’t because I was popular.  And there were many times when I walked the razor’s edge between the weight of responsibility and the effects of insanity from the weight of responsibility.

As a student of Latin, I learned about the solemnity placed upon the charge and responsibility of leadership.  The Roman Republic called it the “Cursus Honorum.”  It was the “Course of Honor.”  Those who aspired to public office underwent a series of assessments to determine the honor or worth of their character.   It was imperative that leaders of the Roman Republic have a certain gravitas.  Public office was earned not only by deed but also by strength of moral fiber.  The Romans understood that leadership is not a component of popularity.  It’s doing the right thing!   The moral platitude of righteousness implies character and humor.

So I must have missed the part where-by leaders have to be funny?

There’s a scene from the movie, “Glory,” where-by Colonel Matthew Gould Shaw, the commanding officer of the 54th Massachusetts is promoting one of his soldiers to the rank of Sergeant Major.  The responsibility entailed in this esteemed position is mind-boggling.

As the Colonel confers the rank he says, “Congratulations Sergeant Major.” The new Sergeant Major whispers in the Colonel’s ear, “Sir I don’t know if I want this.” Immediately Colonel Shaw whispers in the Sargent Major’s ear, “I know what you mean.”

Colonel Shaw and the Sergeant Major were killed at the battle for Fort Wagner.  See what I mean?

My perspective is founded on the seriousness of leadership.  Gravitas was one of the Roman virtues along with duty, dignity, and character.  They defined gravitas as heaviness, weight, a seriousness that denotes the acquisition of public office and subsequent responsibility.  There was little levity in the Roman Senate.  If we’ve learned anything relative to leadership it should be that vision, guts, and gravitas are of essence.  We should ask ourselves who is most connected to other people’s lives and cares about making them better. Who inspires us?  With such criterion in selecting leaders, we’ll be able to face what comes our way.

Yeah!  I already know you’re going to hit me with, “Dr. Joe lighten up, they’re only in high school.  Maybe I should lighten up. And I know they’re just kids but I got this nagging assumption that trivializing leadership is a bad precedent.  Do we allow children to meander through life following false gods?  Perspective is often developed at 15 or 20.  What you eventually become is what you cultivate at this moment.

Don’t rely on popularity and humor as a means toward leadership.  When you run on that ticket you condemn yourself to a vacuous existence.  At best popularity is an aphrodisiac.  Notoriety masks the essence of leadership and soon dissipates. If all you have is popularity you will be undefined worshiping idols of clay that eventually erode away.  Then what are you left with?   “Fame is a vapor; popularity is an accident, and riches take wings.  Only one thing endures and that is character.”  (Horace Greeley)


For crying out loud, if you want me to vote for you, don’t make me laugh …inspire me.













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Commitment to a Higher Calling

My mother said, “Leave a footprint so others know you’ve lived.”  Such a perspective was food for thought for a would be philosophy major.  Mom also said, “Leave some footprints on the hearts of others.”  Her implication was to make another’s life better.

Years later I found my mother’s wisdom intertwined in Sufism:  “Life has many paths; take the path with a heart and you’ll enhance the lives of others and your life too.”

Mom never finished the 6th grade but somehow she knew.    

I’ve traveled many different paths, some of which I’m not happy about.  However, the most fulfilling journeys were imbedded in altruism.  This is eternal wisdom and Dr. King tells us, “You will never be what you ought to be until the least of us are what they ought to be.”

There are those in our community who perform generous acts.  Their magnanimity serves as a guarantor of a deep felt commitment to a life of service.  Although we smile at them, they hardly receive the patronage that merits their worth.  The answer to this quandary lies in what we value.

Service is often done in the shadows and receives little notoriety, yet in 1961 John Kennedy said, “Here on earth God’s work must truly be our own.”  Not everyone answers this challenge.   Such benevolence goes unfounded but then we obsesses over celebrities as though they’re the new Messiah.  

The other day I had a lengthily conversation with Amy Nielsen.  She directs a component of Young Life called Capernaum, devoted to serving youth with physical and developmental disabilities.  Amy remarked, “People with disabilities have the right to experience all of life’s opportunities such as: friendships, fun and adventure, activities that build self-esteem and challenge their limits, and the right to explore a personal relationship with Jesus Christ.”

Amy expressed, “Our orientation is unconditional; children are welcomed regardless of ethnicity, race, or religious beliefs.”  In Capernaum disabled children are not mainstreamed.  Instead, average children are asked to enter their world.  Amy expressed, “When you bring the two worlds together disability is demystified subsequently a bridge is built toward understanding.”

Children with special needs ultimately have no place to go.  Families of diverse cultural and religious backgrounds are attracted to the program because they are longing for someone to care about their children.

Ms. Nielsen explained, “In Young life the staff earns the right to minister to the children.”  I asked, “How do you do that?”  Amy responded, “You build relationships, and you love the children unconditionally.”  Children experience Jesus Christ as a person.  However, exposure to the Bible is purely incidental to the Purpose of Young Life, which is enhancing the lives of children.

Perhaps creating a better community is as simple as Amy expressed,  “The kids know they are loved and that they are created on purpose.”  In Young Life it is the expressed intent for children to learn that they are valued and that they belong. “My life has been changed by people who were interested in me,” Amy said.

Ms. Nielsen inspires me.  Her stories, her devotions, the capacity of her concern for others, give our community a fundamental optimism and decency.  People of excellence go the extra mile to do what is right.  If we take note of people like Amy and understand her work, we’re apt to also make the world a better place.  People like her encourage us to become better individuals.

Amy Nielsen has embraced a life devoted to enriching children.  Is she a hero?  I don’t think so.  She doesn’t slay dragons.  But her devotions are heroic because she makes things better for children one day at a time.

There is a method to my madness.  When we see an example of altruism once again we are reminded, “On earth Gods work should be our own.”


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Finding Clarity

My favorite TV show has always been “Happy Days.” It first aired in the 1970s and into the ‘80s. It was a coming of age story about the lives of four boys growing up in Milwaukee. One of the main characters in the series was nicknamed “The Fonz” and played by Henry Winkler. He was a caricature from another era and was the bad boy of the neighborhood. When he made a mistake, as he often did, he would slur his apology. In a nearly inaudible voice he would mumble, “I’m sorry.”

I’m going to apologize more loudly.

Last week I wrote a scathing column about the La Cañada High School varsity soccer program. I hammered the coach and the team over what I thought had been unsportsmanlike conduct. I objected to the team sitting down without shaking their opponents’ hands at the end of the game. My thoughts were accusatory. I questioned the character of the team and the coach.

My facts were wrong and, after considerable reflection and analysis, I fall on my sword and in an audible voice I apologize for my error. I should have dug deeper to find out the reasoning behind the decision not to shake hands on the field that day. I’ve since learned the coach was trying to maintain calm after a heated game.

As J.R.R. Tolkien said, “All who wander are not lost.” When one pursues the truth long enough they often find it.

To the team: My apologies to you for disparaging your character. I trust that you are valiant players and my characterization of you as being dishonorable was wrong. Actually, as I craft these thoughts I am sitting in the stands watching you play San Marino. Your team is quite good.

Guys, life is not always fair and sometimes you are going to take some pretty rough hits that are unwarranted. You have to take another’s “best shot” and move on. Regardless of the heat that is placed on you, never allow another to define you with his negativity. Life becomes progressively more difficult as you age and now is the time to define a center that enables you to excel when you are under scrutiny. Nothing can destroy you, but you.

Coach: You did the right thing by sitting the team down and potentially averting an incident that could have had serious consequences. My apologies to you. I was the athletic administrator at Glendale College for a number of years and have a methodology that is contrary to yours. Nevertheless, you should not have been vilified for not being in-sync with my analysis.

So what’s the point of this past week? How do we learn from this? How do we grown and change? Maybe we have to look within, as there were lessons on both sides of this debate. Maybe different philosophies relative to sports in La Cañada might be considered. I have a definitive philosophy that athletics is the servant of a higher quest. Winning is incidental to developing an individual in totality. Maybe there’s potential for such a discussion. Maybe there’s some resolve relative to what I put you through this week that will make our athletics prosper.

Winning and losing are ultimately the same. What’s important is how you win or lose and how you’ve changed because of it, and what you take away from it that you never had before, to apply to other aspects of life. If you are willing to examine yourself, and look at not just your outward physical performance, but also your internal workings, then athletics will serve you well.

I step away from this, move on, and hopefully I’ll finally finish chapter 12 this week of the Great American Novel. However, I remain a fan of the Spartans and once again I am proud to be a booster.

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Starting Over

December 12th appeared like any other manic Monday.  I drove my girls to LCHS, went to Starbucks, and continued my struggle with chapter 12 searching for the right words that would give readers an ‘ah ha’ moment.

The weather was sunny… a beautiful Indian summers’ day.  If you’ve been to New England in October, you would understand.  Alen made a café latte and I sat in the sun memorized by the aromatic vapors oozing from my favorite ceramic cup.  I wrote page after page, and didn’t care that I would eventually delete most of it.

When I was in the bowels of Vietnam I promised myself such moments if I were to return.  Life did not get any better than this!

As I watched the remaining leaves cascading from the trees, I said, “Today… I’m going to retire!” 

I went to school, signed papers, and began the process of closing the door on 37 years of teaching, counseling, saving souls, mending hearts, and patching self-esteems.  Facebook, the new Paul Revere spread the news through the veins of the social networks, “Dr. Joe is retiring.”

My last day was December 19th.  My office was inundated with 100’s of books: history, literature, philosophy, biography, adventure, psychology, and humanities were testaments of the transference of knowledge that happened there.  

My four walls were covered from floor to ceiling with pictures of students from 1975 to 2012.  The plan was to dismantle the office at 7 PM.  Students from the 80’s, 90’s and beyond began to arrive, and as planned began the slow methodical process of transforming a room that had seen so much life into four baron walls.  It would take a lifetime to account for 37 years of stories depicting despair, exhilaration, hope, distain, laughter, and, tears.  If only these walls could talk!   But they can’t and it doesn’t matter anyway.  It was just time to move on and seek new adventures.

The quote that hung on my office door for many years was tattered and the ink had faded long ago.  I had used its words many times coaxing my students to take risks and jump over the precipices that are found on the journey.  As my students cleared my office I read its words for the last time. “A ship in the harbor is safe but that’s not what ships are built for.”  I realized that these thoughts are now meant for me.  

When you leave safe ground and step off into a new place there are feelings of curiosity and excitement, and a little nagging of dread. It’s the ancient fear of the unknown, and it is your first bond with the limitless possibilities that wait.

Sevada took the old sign that leaned against the bookcase depicting my core philosophy.  “It’s not the destination; it’s the journey.”  Glendale College gave me this remarkable journey and it was a great ride.  I thought of the words of Robert Frost. “The woods are lovely darks and deep and I‘ve got promises to keep and miles to before I sleep.”

I still have some juice left.  Maybe I’ll teach high school, or help Mrs. Pruden’s second grade class at LCE, maybe I’ll write another book or join the CIA.  But as Helen Keller once said, “Life is a daring adventure or nothing at all.”

It’s important to work for that pot of gold.  But sometimes it’s essential that your most important decision of the day is to watch the ebb and flow of the ocean at Corona Del Mar.

It took my students three hours to dismantle the office; there was nothing remaining.  At the end of the evening I walked back in with Andre.  “Dr. Joe,” he said.  “There’s nothing left.”  “Only memories Andre!” 

We closed the door and left to smoke a hookah.       













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