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On June 5th 1832 Victor Hugo, a French writer was crafting another masterpiece. Startled by the sounds of exploding cannons and screaming men, he dropped his pen and instead of running for the safety of home, he ran to the sound of the guns. He made his way up the narrow and winding streets of Paris and suddenly was amidst barricades and flying bullets. He had stumbled upon the June Rebellion of 1832.
The insurrection was a fight between the Republicans/students and the Monarchists/government. The students fighting for the rights of the people faced insurmountable odds and literally threw themselves on the bayonets of the oppressors. How do we not know who they were?
Hugo was moved by what he saw; subsequently he began work on his greatest novel, “Les Miserables.” I’ve read the book many times; I’ve dog-eared and underlined the pages and wrote volumes in the margins. I saw the musical on Broadway and the movie on Christmas Day. It’s a story about love, innocence, forgiveness, sacrifice, death, social justice, religion, grace, politics, and moral philosophy.
I went to see the movie with my girls and this time I got a different take on the story. It was an epiphany and just in case you’re looking for a good New Years resolution, I got one for you. It’s straight from the story.
Here’s a small segment from Volume l; that’s where we’ll find the message.
The protagonist, Jean Valjean was released from prison after serving 19 years for stealing bread to feed his sister’s children. As a convict, he is ostracized by society but is given a warm bed and a meal by Bishop Myriel. During the night Valjean steals the Bishop’s silver, is caught by the police, and brought to the Bishop to face his crime. The Bishop tells the police that he had given the silver to Mr. Valjean as a gift and had done nothing wrong.
From the darken bowls of a depraved life Valjean was given redemption. Darkness served its purpose; it shows us that there is redemption in turmoil. Isn’t that the basis of all Greek Mythology?
The moral of the story may not be that obvious since “Les Miserables” is a real mind game. There are so many crevices, bends, and directions to the story. But let me decipher the message. That’s my job!
Forgiveness, a second chance, and a commitment to change one’s life are the hooks to Volume l. It’s a universal theme and is expressed in a complex story. It’s the perfect New Year’s resolution. Pass on the love! It’s as simple as that.
Let me go a little deeper into the story. Valjean finds redemption and seeks restitution, as he becomes a man of altruism. He spends the rest of his life building his own moral philosophy. He becomes the true hero
My dear reader, I don’t mean to preach. I can hardly walk into a church without feeling that I’m going to be struck by lightening. However, when someone renders you a kindness, pass on the love and take that kindness and give it to another.
Let me leave you with a quote from “Les Miserables.” It adds credence to the New Year’s resolution that I encourage you to make.
“There is a determined though unseen bravery that defends itself foot by foot in the darkness against the fatal invasions of necessity and dishonesty. Noble and mysterious triumphs that no eye sees, and no fame rewards, and no flourish of triumph salutes. Life, misfortunes, isolation, abandonment, poverty, are battlefields that have their heroes; obscure heroes, sometimes greater than the illustrious heroes.”
Victor Hugo was brilliant. He found the answer to the maddening inertia of life by following the sound of the guns during the June Rebellion of 1832.
Posted on January 7, 2013 by
It was the beginning of summer. It had to be a few years before I married because once I meet Kaitzer in 1988, I wouldn’t try something foolish that just might get me killed.
At the time I was throwing down shooters with my buddy Gerry George in our favorite honky-tonk bar. I’m not sure what came over me, but I stole a line from Gandalf the wizard, a character in Tolkien’s, The Hobbit. “I am looking for someone to share an adventure.”
I pulled that quote like a pistol. Sometimes you wait a lifetime for the opportunity to grab a piece of literature and interdict such into one’s circumstance.
“What do you have in mind,” Gerry said. “I want to hop a freight train and travel across the country.” He looked at me as though I was out of my mind. “Joe, are you crazy? We could get killed on an adventure like that!” I thought of the Pony Express Advertisement of 1860, “…willing to risk death daily.” That’s what made my idea so intriguing.
I explained to Gerry that when I was young I memorized every song from Arlo Guthrie’s Hobo’s Lullaby. Guthrie sang about hobos traversing the iron veins of the country and the oral tradition that binds the culture together: the age-old uniquely American underdog tale of life on the rails. Hopping a freight connects the rider to something vital and elemental about the country, something with a powerful, driving rhythm wrapped in the exhilaration of motion. Part of the draw in hopping a freight is that you don’t know where you are going. You travel for the sake of travel. The aphrodisiac is movement.
“When do we leave,” Gerry said.
We packed a couple of travel bags, strapped a straight edge razor to our boots to ward off those who would do us harm and began our journey in Redding, California. I took the following verse from my travel journal, which incidentally I didn’t date. “We ran from the police and hid underneath a coal car. When the coast was clear we hopped on a slow moving train. The police didn’t see us. We fell asleep in the freight car and when we woke up, we were crawling slowly around the side of the Rocky Mountains and everywhere we looked were elk and rainbows.”
We were underway; home was definitely behind us, and in front of us lay the rest of the world. As I dangled my feet from the door of the boxcar, I recorded one of my favorite J.R.R. Tolkien quotes in my journal, “There are no safe paths in this part of the world. Remember you are over the Edge of the Wild now, and in for all sorts of fun wherever you go.”
I’ll save my adventures on the rails for another day.
I read Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit when I was in elementary school. They are a connected body of tales, poems, fictional histories, invented languages, and literary essays about a fantasy world. It had to be his work that shaped my philosophy, a way of laying out the world and planting yourself in it. It’s a way of gaining insight about the self through an understanding of the natural world. One’s personage is defined through experience and challenges…an immersion into a life of adventure so to speak.
The Hobbit is a major motion picture; it speaks to those qualities that are innate to man. See the movie, maybe you’ll identify with Bilbo Baggins as he casts his fate to the wind and joins Gandalf and his dwarf warriors in an adventure of a lifetime.
Having an adventure is a good way to begin 2013. Let me know what you plan. I might have a few thoughts on how to get there.
Posted on January 7, 2013 by
Mrs. Testa was an old curmudgeon. She lived alone on the fifth floor of my building; rarely did she leave her apartment. It was rumored that she once was a beautiful countess in Milano. She must have been at least that because she was very wealthy. It was sad that no one ever knew her first name.
Mrs. Testa spoke to no one but me! It was a business arrangement. Once a month I’d wash her windows. She lived on the 5th floor. After holding on for dear life, I’d walk away with an extra dollar. I would have done it for nothing because I loved living on the edge.
I felt sorry for her. Sorry that she was alone and she didn’t care that she was. Mrs. Testa lived alone not because she enjoyed solitude. People like her have tried to blend into the world before, but were disappointed. It was just easier to stay home because she was weaker than her fear of people. Sylvia Playth said, “The loneliness of the soul in its appalling self-consciousness is horrible and overpowering.” This is especially true during the Christmas season. There are few things in life more awful than feeling empty and alone at Christmas. The relentless pressure to be jolly, to feel happy, and be surrounded by loving friends, leaves many people feeling isolated and miserable at this time of year. Loneliness is the malaise and love is the tonic to the alchemy of Christmas.
On Christmas Eve, 1964 the Bronx was paralyzed by a terrible storm. The pipes in our building adjacent to our deli froze then burst. The result was no heat. Our deli had a large wood-burning stove; we filled it with coal and fired it up. Subsequently, the only place on the block that had heat was Puglia’s Delicatessen.
Throughout the building my mother and I scurried inviting families to the deli to escape the cold. People came and lingered for the heat, but stayed for the magic that was happening. I fired up some 55 gallon drums filled with coal and placed them in front of the deli; my dad poured shots of whiskey and opened a gallon of wine. My mom and the women prepared coffee and a large pot of pasta; the older folks sat on milk crates; and mother’s held babies while little children played. We shoveled a path in the snow from the building to our store. The Bronx Boys and the men hung outside by the fire passing a bottle of hooch.
Everyone had been accounted for except Mrs. Testa. “Why isn’t she here,” my mom asked?” I ran back up to her apartment, but she wasn’t there. She had us worried! Later, a black limousine pulled up to the deli. A chauffer emerged and delivered cakes and boxes of cannoli’s from Ferrar’s Bakery in Little Italy. He returned to the limo, opened the door, and escorted Mrs. Testa into the deli.
Everyone shouted, “Merry Christmas Mrs. Testa!” “Buon Natale,” she answered. Her being there was a noble adjustment of circumstance. In the doldrums of Christmas, for a lonely woman, there is nothing is the world so irresistibly contagious as laughter and good humor. This Christmas as we partake in our merriment, we might think of the lonely souls who have no one.
I hung outside keeping warm, dancing to the flames emanating from the old oil drum. Through the frosted window of the deli I saw people laughing, eating, and drinking. I heard voices singing “Silent Night,” muffled by the windowpane. One voice was out of sync; it was Mrs. Testa singing in Italian.
I have always wondered what broke the evil spell condemning her to a life of loneliness. It was more than the magic of Christmas. From that day on, Mrs. Testa passed on the love.
Posted on December 26, 2012 by
I’ve never been able to dispel the memory of December 1, 1956. Ninety-two children and three nuns died in a fire at Our Lady of the Angeles Elementary School in Chicago. I was in the third grade and time has not erased feelings of despondency and insecurity. I still see the pictures of the firemen carrying the lifeless bodies of the children. We prayed for their souls but frankly I had a hard time praying to a God who would allow children to suffer.
Years later circumstance did not improve. In Vietnam I couldn’t comprehend the senseless mutilation of children whose only crime was that American medical personnel had vaccinated them against measles. The Viet Cong cut their arms off. There were no prayers said; there was only retribution. The Marines would not defer this crime to God’s judgment.
Who remembers the tragedy that befell the little Amish girls of Nickel Mines, Pennsylvania? They were children, little girls in long white plain dresses, massacred, shot in the head, executed at point blank range by some bastard who just felt the urge.
Our world is out of orbit; and we are spinning toward a black hole of our own design.
Last Friday the unconscionable happened again. Twenty little children and six teachers were murdered senselessly at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newton, Connecticut. That evening, I looked for reassurance hoping to find peace amidst the beautiful voices of the LCHS Concert Choir. Mr. Brookey held back his tears as he asked for a moment of silence.
But what constitutes a moment in silence? Is it reflection… respect for the innocents? Is it a passing moment where-by we rationalize the unbelievable? Do we search for peace? I can only see blood and hatred for those who harm children. I know the path for finding peace; but I will not turn the other cheek; so for me there is no peace. For God’s sake…they were children!
Sentimentality and spirituality erode on days like this. The massacre cannot be answered with superficial and sentimental Christian emotivism, or with glib dismissals of the enormity of this crime.
How does one fathom the sensibilities of man? Where is the divine spark in the soul that I had learned of in Catholic School? It’s Christmas and the children are gone and the Concert Choir sings “Oh Holy Night,” and I am left trying to answer the simple question …why?
The choir is marvelous and sings… “A thrill of hope the weary world rejoices, for yonder breaks a new and glorious morn.” Where is this nirvana for the residents of Newton, Connecticut? Will the parents of the children ever again experience such a morn?
The choir then reaches a crescendo, “O night divine, o night when Christ was born.” And how do I sing to a God that I cannot rationalize, a God that would allow the massacre of innocents. But yet I am lost in the music and Mr. Brookey directs a message of hope and once again the possibility of peace looms.
I’m a sucker for peace! Aren’t we all?
What drove me to Saint Bede’s the following Sunday? It wasn’t faith! In the face of such horror we are driven to the cross and the resurrection of Christ. Maybe the reconciling power of Jesus is the only answer to such a depraved and diabolical act. Maybe Monsignor Antonio’s message, “No matter how dark the moment, love and hope are always possible,” is the rationale. I have no answers, but yet I sit in church.
I am sorry for the dismal thoughts during this season. But how can there be Christmas without these kids?
Posted on December 26, 2012 by
I’ve kept a journal since 1961. That’s when I first met Amia Davia. She was beautiful! I felt like Dante walking the streets of Florence in the 13th Century. There, Dante met Beatrice Portinari. That same evening, he wrote one of the greatest love poems, LA Vita Nouva. “From that moment love governed my soul,” he penned. Amia was the first entry in my journal. I’ve never stopped writing.
When you record your first words, you begin a journey. It’s the longest journey you’ll ever take. It’s the journey to find you.
Thoughts from Dr. Joe are from my journals and when I pick up a dusty old book, I relive moments that happened long ago. They come alive and I marvel at the magnitude of circumstance that I once experienced. My journal is a treasury of thoughts in my life: the stories I hear, the people I meet, the quotations I like, and even the subtle signs and symbols I encounter that speak to me indirectly.
My readers often ask, “Dr. Joe how do you remember such detail in your columns.” Well it’s not that difficult since I’ve recorded years of perspective and vivid circumstance in my journals. But I also have a propensity for story. When you experience profound circumstance it never quite leave you. If a story touches you it stays with you especially when you write it down.
The thoughts I tell come form my journals. Hey! Someone needs to tell the stories of battles fighting against the dark, and how the explorers found the New World, and how the heroes sly the dragons. The magic is in the story and it transcends to the listener. I like to think that because of my words somewhere happenstance will move a reader and drive them and who knows what they might do because of it. There are many kinds of magic found in the pages of a journal.
In life, there’s a story behind everything. Why does an old man have tears in his eyes when the flag goes by? Why is he missing the thumb on his right hand? Some stories are happy and others will tear you’re your guts out. Regardless, they lie dormant in the pages of a journal and patiently wait their time until once again they surface and remind us of the joyful and tragic fragility of life.
“Dr. Joe! Why are you always writing,” I’m often asked? I must be considered an oddity sitting in either Penelope’s or Starbucks with a pen and a journal or with my laptop hammering away at the great American novel. I stammer when I’m asked that question. “I like it,” is my only reply.
Journaling is a life changing experience. The detailed accounting of our daily circumstance makes a difference in our lives. The experiences we encounter do not happen in a vacuum; there’s a greater purpose to what befalls us. So you write them down and use them as a future source of inspiration.
Journaling is a way of tracking the development of our consciousness. According to Greek philosophers our highest quest is to know thy self. “Know thy Self,” was inscribed on the temple at Delphi. Journaling enables us to record our journey. We’re not just writing experiences, our accounting of life reveals our true selves and maybe even a higher purpose.
I find comfort in ritual where-by I grab my Esterbook pen that I’ve used since 1960. I fill it with blue ink from an old Schaefer well, open a leather bound notebook, and sip on a chi tea latte from Penelope’s or a black tea form Starbucks. I’ve written ten’s of thousands of words and I can’t say for sure anyone will ever read any of my words.
If you keep a journal, you’ll realize that it doesn’t matter.
Posted on December 7, 2012 by