Missing in Italy

Sometimes I shake my head wondering: did this really happen?

Advanced Italian Cuisine
Alma, an Italian Cooking School outside of Parma, Italy
Education Fee's

I’ve waited for quite awhile to tell this story. It’s a rather sensitive matter, therefore, I will use almost all fictitious names to protect those involved. There are people in this story who were supportive, sympathetic, and brave and then there are the rest. I should start by saying that the entire matter was surreal for me. As I went through the motions and experienced it, I felt as though I was on the set of a movie shoot; none of it seemed real, and all of it bizarre. What I know for certain, is that it happened and it changed me.

Searching for a Needle in an Italian Haystack

It was an ordinary day at The International Culinary Center (ICC) in New York City when I received the call. At the time, I was School Director and Dean of Student Affairs. The year was the early 2000s. I had worked with others to create an Italian cooking training program in Italy. Students would start their training at ICC and then travel to Alma in Colorno, Italy for the final six weeks of their training. I had traveled to Colorno (by way of Milan) several times. Our relationship with the staff in Italy was solid and the student experience was exceptional. I was proud to be a part of a very unique cooking school experience. Most of the students were in the 20s and 30s; very mature and focused.

We did several rotations a year and enrollment was better than expected. I was the administrator-in-charge of the program; however, there were over ten faculty and staff members doing the real work of executing the experience. The cost of the complete course was close to $50,000 and because part of it was overseas, there were many moving parts. My father was born in Italy; in many ways, it felt as if I had come full-circle in my Italian heritage. While I worked with others to create the program, I learned a lot about regional Italian cooking, its rich history, and I got to try every dish taught. In addition, I was a proud judge during finals in Italy on several occasions.

Francesca (her real name) was my contact person at Alma. What we were about to experience created a bond and lifelong friendship born out of a terrifying situation. Francesca’s call about one of our students in Italy, continues to make me anxious all these years later. There are deeply felt emotions that are never lost and never leave us.

“Chris, I need to tell you something, but I don’t want you to worry too much.”

My body tensed and I stayed quiet and I listened.

“One of your ICA (at that time we called the program Italian Culinary Academy) students has disappeared.”

Francesca was not an alarmist and she took care of nearly any incident on the Alma campus, so I knew this was serious. Sal was gone for two days and no one had heard from him. His passport and toothbrush were still in his room and there appeared to be no foul play. Administrators at both schools agreed that he had probably met a girl and he was with her on a sun drenched beach. Sal’s friends and classmates didn’t believe that was the case and this caused great concern. Apparently, there were witnesses to an argument outside of a bar the night before he’d gone missing; in fact, the last time Sal was seen. The argument was between Sal and several locals. Some students speculated that the argument was over a Russian girl from the bar, but no one was certain. Francesca and I agreed that Sal’s parents should be informed. She was also going to call the Colorno carabinieri (local police).

I quickly booked a flight to Milan, packed a small bag, and headed for JFK. Alma had a car pick me up in Milan and I attempted to rest my eyes and calm my brain on the 2.5 hour drive to Colorno. It had been 16 hours since hearing from Francesca and by this time, I imagined all sorts of horrible scenarios. Growing up in Brooklyn during the 60s and 70s made me tough, street smart, and terribly jaded. Film and murder mysteries didn’t help.

Riccardo (head of the school) and Francesca met me at the school when I arrived. There was no news from Sal and everyone was thinking the worst. Sal’s parents were on their way from the States and Francesca was arranging their accommodations. Jet lag was helping make a bad situation untenable; my thoughts toggling between despair about what might have happened to Sal and dread concerning meeting his parents. A living nightmare and nowhere to hide.

Francesca drove me to the police station for a conversation regarding next steps. I sat with several carabinieri officers asking every question I could think of. Francesca was interpreting for me and I could tell she was exhausted and worried. The carabinieri would not confirm or deny a street argument or that there might have been a Russian girl involved.

After hours at the police station and talking with students, I headed for my hotel room to close my eyes. Francesca agreed to contact me with any news.

There was one particular bar not far from the school that was popular with the American students attending Alma. Colorno is a very small town and everyone knows everyone. There were rumors among the students a number of Russian woman were available for hire and that Sal might have owed money to one of the handlers of these woman. Administrators at Alma seemed genuinely surprised to hear that prostitution was taking place under their noses. My mind took me to dark place; imagining Sal buried six feet underground somewhere outside of Colorno.

Sal’s parents arrived the evening of my first day, however, they did not show up on campus until the following morning. By then, I had slept a few hours and I was more prepared to meet with them. Alma was very sympathetic to their anxiety and did everything possible to make them comfortable. Looking back, I was actually quite surprised by their calm and decorum. They too spent time with the local police. They also took several students close to Sal for lunch and tried to better understand where he might be.

At some point at the end of our first full day, we all met to discuss what we might do next — parents intentionally left out. Alma seemed reluctant to contact the press, for fear the school’s reputation might be harmed. I believe we were secretly hoping Sal would turn up on campus behaving as if he’d done nothing wrong.

As time passed, the street argument became more of a factor; all involved were called in and questioned by the police. The carabinieri were convinced that there was no there there. I started to feel as if there might be a cover-up and Sal’s parents were skeptical as well. Although his parents and I were in communication throughout the day during early days of the incident, I felt fairly distant from them; detached. They were understandably frustrated, tired, and concerned.

On the fourth day, none of us believed Sal would just reappear. If he had run away with a girl or decided to bail from the program, he would have taken his passport at the very least. We were all fairly certain foul play of some sort had taken place. The Italian state police were brought in after Alma’s administration began to feel as if the local police were not doing enough. Word got out to the press and just about every local and regional news outlet was covering the disappearance. When word got out that an American student was missing and there was speculation that the Russian mafia might have been involved, a search party was dispatched and the rivers and lakes in the area were dredged. I silently hoped Sal would call us to say that he’d see the reports of his disappearance and wanted to let us know that he was fine and that he was sorry for all of the trouble he’d caused. That didn’t happen, but all I had was hope.

I wasn’t sleeping very well and couldn’t help thinking that this would probably be the last class studying at Alma. One incident, completely unrelated to the cooking experience could threaten the viability of a program we worked on for two years. The pubic relations machine at both schools was working hard to highlight how positive the Alma experience was and that this was an unfortunate one-off situation. Sal’s parents were angry that the Italian police and government were not doing more to locate their son; we were mindful that they alone could potentially raise enough concern to shut us down.

His parents decided that a trip to the American Embassy in Milan might help get the Italian government to take this more seriously. I regretfully volunteered to drive them to the embassy. They sat together in the back seat; Sal’s father consoling his mother most of the way to Milan. Over two hours in a vehicle with someone crying hysterically is not easy for the person at the wheel. I didn’t say much for fear of saying the wrong thing. I tried my best to be supportive and reassuring. I didn’t think the people at the embassy would help, but it wasn’t my son who was missing.

When we got to the embassy it was a well-guarded fortress. I dropped them off as close as I could get to the entrance and parked the car. Just as I arrived they were being escorted in. The guards told me that only the parents would be allowed. I called for Sal’s father and he walked over and apologized. He knew that I would be staying in Milan that night and flying back to the States the next morning. It had been a full week since Sal had gone missing and there was nothing more I could do in Italy. Sal’s father agreed to call me if they needed anything and we said our goodbyes. I felt very sorry for Sal’s parents and I was exhausted.

I recall making a call to Gary, ICA’s president, that afternoon and becoming emotional on the phone. The fear of learning that a dead body was found was becoming more and more real. Gary, as always, was extremely supportive and grateful. He and the rest of the staff at ICC were hoping for the best. He asked me to remain calm and to get home safely. The administration at Alma was also very supportive and assured me that they would do everything possible to find Sal. I flew back to the States the next morning.

Time passed and still no word from Sal. His parents stayed in Italy for a couple of weeks and then returned home when hope of finding him had diminished. They became angry, resentful, and blamed both schools for gross negligence. They claimed that we had placed their son in an unsafe environment. Sal’s brother publicly posted a scathing letter, claiming the school was completely negligent. Threats of a lawsuit were being bandied about. The students in Italy had gone on with their studies hoping to complete the program. I had all but given up hope.

Graduation at Alma was scheduled a few weeks out; I knew it would be best for be to return and attend. When I arrived on campus, the students, whom I had stayed in contact with, greeted me warmly. They all assured me that the ICC was not to blame for Sal’s disappearance. We all wondered if this great mystery would ever be solved. I met with the local and state police for an update — there was none. Still much speculation that there was foul play, however, the guilty party or parties, had not revealed themselves. I returned to New York having lost quite a few pounds and feeling like I’d let a lot of people down.

Thanksgiving came and went. Each day brought less talk of Sal’s whereabouts. My emotions had gone from remorse to sadness to anger; acceptance was not within reach. Then, out of nowhere, shorty before Christmas, a call from Francesca in Italy, Sal had been located. He had joined the French Foreign Legion. Apparently, when you join, you leave behind the material world and those you once cared about; some join to escape their lives. Sal somehow managed to slip a note with his parents telephone Number to an Asian guy who was leaving the Legion and had agreed to make a call. It was the best Christmas gift of my life.

There are several takeaways from this life event that are forever etched in my brain. First, Sal’s family never apologized for their treatment of the two schools. They blamed us for Sal’s disappearance for months and when he turned up, not one of them came forward to acknowledge they were unfair and had hurt several good people. Lastly, when Sal left the French Foreign Legion he did not contact me to explain himself, apologize or thank me or the ICC for trying to find him. Oddly, I didn’t care. It bothered others at the school and it made several people in my life angry, but I had something far more important to me, I had peace-of-mind and Christmas that unfortunate year.

Disclaimer: This incident occurred over ten years ago, therefore, I cannot swear by every detail outlined in my accounting of the story. Due to the seriousness of the situation and my own personal involvement, I can only vouch for my own recollection of what took place.

Flag of legion.svg
The French Foreign Legion Emblem

Filtering Yourself

Photo by Retha Ferguson on Pexels.com

Keeping your mouth shut these days is harder than shoving a passel of hogs into a tiny hog pen . . . at feeding time. I’ve been around for quite some time and I’ve never experienced anything like what we’re seeing today. Division, unrest, widespread racism, anger, pandemics, extreme climate change, and the list goes on. Every generation speaks of times in their lives when major changes caused emotional disruption; however, I would argue that what is happening now, has to be up there in the top five.

Regardless of the rank and strength of the impact, these are challenging times. If you have a heart and an opinion, you are feeling it with an intensity that can cause quite the verbal eruption. Some would say that speaking your truth is healthy and necessary and others regard it as dangerous. People in both camps exist in my world and will continue to be a part of my life. I have been notoriously vocal my entire life, except when I’m quiet. So why the contradiction?

What it Feels Like

When I have something to say, it feels like fire in my belly and a vice squeezing my skull. It’s not pleasant and there are very few ways to release the pressure.

Having opinions is a good thing. Speaking your mind is a way of expressing your thoughts and feelings. It allows others to get to know you better. It’s also a way to remain free, free of thoughts weighing you down. Keeping it all bottled up can destroy your already compromised organs.

The conversation I have with myself about whether or not to speak-up is getting easier as I mature. There was a time when remaining quiet was not even an option; today, I employ this method of self-preservation, more often than not.

The Process of Deciding When to Share

Yesterday, I reposted a blog I wrote on Racism last year. I know it will anger some of the people in my life who will disagree. In the blog I call myself a passive racist; I believe it to be true. I’m ashamed of the number of times I have stood by and listened to people disparage black or brown people and said nothing. At the time I disagreed, but I didn’t want to rock the boat or cause a scene. I was dead wrong. I cannot turn back the clock, however, I can behave differently and call people out when I see and hear racial bias.

Sharing my political point of view has been difficult because of the current climate. These days it’s difficult to have a civilized conversation about politics. I’ve been told I have no right to share my opinion because I no longer live in the States or that the only reason I’m a left leaning liberal is because I’m gay — both rediculous.

What to Share

Choose wisely. Carefully consider what to share with others and when to share it. The last thing I want is for people to say, “There he goes again, mouthing off about something.” That can happen easily if you’re not careful.

Lately, I wait until I’m truly passionate about something before I put it out there. This seems to be more effective. The response I get on social media can be very telling and I’ve been paying attention. People are tired of politics. Those that feel very strongly, on either side, are not giving up, nor should they. I’m certainly not giving up. What I am doing is being more deliberate about when and how I state my opinion.

There are many people out there who do not want to hear it. They are in denial about the existence of problems in and with society. To those people I say, turn off your social media news feeds and television. You you don’t want to hear it, telling me or anyone else to shut up is not going to be effective. If you want to bury your head in the sand, then refrain from coming to the surface.

Some of us feel, me included, that in order for positive change to happen, we must have the converstaion.

Reactions and Responses

When you share in a public forum, you must be prepared for backlash. For me, having people agree with me is not necessarily what I am hoping for. I enjoy a good debate or argument. Tell me why you feel or think the way you do and back it up with facts, I promise to do the same. I have admitted to being wrong on more than one occasion and I have also been known to change my point of view. In addition to learning something in the process, a good argument can be a lot of fun; stimulating and enlightening. So why are so many adverse to partaking in a good debate? These days it seems that some would prefer to walk away from a relationship, than engage in a discussion. I think that’s sad.

Losing Friends & Family

Losing people in your life may be the most difficult outcome of being honest with your thoughts and feelings. Before you speak or write or video what’s on your mind, you should consider the toll it may take. Are you willing to alienate people in your life that have meant something to you for a long time?

I recently had this situation tested in my personal life. My politics have pissed people off for a long time; however, because of where the nation is politically today, people are more wedded to their point of view than ever before. It’s unwise and wrong for me to fault anyone for their beliefs, whether I think those beliefs are based on truth or not. My choice is to find middle ground and recall what made that person special to me.

Going Forward

I have learned that that staying silent is impossible. Repressed thoughts or feelings eventually surface; when they do, the longer I allowed them to fester, the more toxic and harder they are to rein in.

The bottom line is comfort. For me, if I’m not strong in my convictions and resolute about where I stand, I cannot speak out. There are moments when I feel that my time is better spent working on my own self-worth; exercising my ego and feeding my brain. I have to be certain I know what I am talking about before I spout off. I have to fact check myself and do my homework. Then and only then, can I speak my mind.This is the way for me to defend myself, debate and walk away with pride. Self-empowerment is mighty strong and an effective tool for healthy living.

I Am Strong | Sick and Sick of It

Traveling to Cascais, Portugal tomorrow; see next week’s blog. First trip since lockdown.

Right Where I am Supposed to Be

Accept, Adjust and Adapt

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There have been many life lessons learned over the past couple of months. I can’t speak for those of us who were/are in quarantine with others and in fact, I cannot speak for those spending this time alone; I can only speak for myself. Clearly, this is and has been a unique experience for all of us. I have been alone in a foreign country since the lockdown began and it is surreal at the very least.

It’s difficult not to be confused about exactly what is happening with COVID-19. It depends on who you’re watching or reading and what you choose to believe. There is a reason most people no longer have faith in the media or their government. I only allow myself a few minutes of news a day. It doesn’t matter when you turn on the television, it’s one big loop of sensationalism and half-truths. For the most part I choose to read a couple of sources and form my own opinion. I do what I have to do to stay within the law as we battle the unknown. Since fear is a major motivator for government and the media, I refuse to get sucked into this toxic vortex. I rely on facts as much as possible and I leave speculation to others.

 

Once You Discover Who You Are . . .

When you’re alone with your thoughts, you come to realizations and you make choices. Do you dwell on the negative? Do you get angry? Do you find yourself escaping? What mechanism do you use to cope? You probably have an arsenal of weapons on hand to deal with reality. Choosing healthy tools is the best way to go, however, that’s not always possible. So how do decide the route to take? First, do you know who you are?

There are things I have discovered about myself that help me develop the tools I need and make the right choices:

  1. I do not like for anything to interfere with a good night’s sleep (about 7.5 hours).
  2. I do not like paying for my bad choices the next day.
  3. I do not like how it feels when I beat myself up.
  4. I love how it feels to be well rested.
  5. I do not like how my stomach feels when I have overindulged.
  6. When I have the discipline of going to the gym five or six times a week, I never contemplate not exercising. When that option is not available, one out of two times, I will not exercise. Even writing this down helps to motivate me.
  7. There are times when I’m stressed and concerned and in complete denial about my state of mind.
  8. As I get older, I have less tolerance for many things.
  9. Food has become my primary motivator.
  10. Having a pet helps with self-discipline.

It all seems pretty straightforward and normal. So why am I still uncertain?

 

Tools & Rewards

One of the tools I frequently use is the weighing of pros and cons. Yes, that second Marguerita would taste really good with my Mexican food, but what price would I pay? When I do this simple assessment, nine out of 10 times, I will decide to pass on the second cocktail.

I live for rewards. I find them to be a positive way to live a healthier life. If I do blank I get blank as a reward. This has been my MO for a long time. During this time — the lockdown, I have noticed this happening more often. If I complete my language lesson, I can read my novel for an hour. If I climb the stairs in my building for 30 minutes, I can have some chocolate and on and on. It seems to be the only thing that motivates me, but it works.

 

What Matters Most

What matters most in my life has been the greatest lesson learned during this time. I thought about this prior to the virus, but sorting it out has become a much greater priority. My family has always been important to me and that will continue until I die. A trip to the States this week was unfortunately cancelled. Now that I am a resident of Portugal, I cannot fly to the States at this time; my legal address is here. I need to be certain that I am okay with this situation for at least the next five years. Selling an apartment in Faro is not going to be like it was in the States — I sold my last three apartments in less than a week. In Portugal, your place can easily sit on the market for up to two years. That’s fine, it just means planning a bit further into the future.

The good news is that I have come out of this knowing that living overseas is definitely what I want and remaining overseas is a certainty. I have come to realize that there is another move left in me and it will more than likely be Italy. I ultimately want to be where my father was born. I am Italian after all. Now that I have my father’s birth certificate, I can begin to look into dual citizenship. The coast of Croatia is also a possibility — all options are currently open. It’s a big world out there isn’t it?

 

Noticing Changes 

It seems that people are more grateful now than they have been for a long time. Grateful to others, grateful for their own good health, and grateful to be alive. I remember how people in New York City were after 911. I rode the subway watching strangers who would have never considered giving up their seats, stand for older people or the disabled. I saw people smile at one another for no other reason than to show gratitude and solidarity. This was a New York City I could love. Unfortunately, it didn’t last. We slowly slipped back into our everyday, former routines.

I suspect the same thing will happen with this pandemic. People will be more grateful for a short while and then we will all go back to “normal.” Even if we have to socially distance ourselves from one another for a long while or wear masks when we get a haircut; we humans adapt pretty quickly. If we’re conscious of our nature, is it possible to change? I think it is very possible. Your new normal can be based on what you learned from past experience. If you took up running while in quarantine, then continue to run. If you started eating healthier foods, keep it up, if you called people you care about more often, and so on.

The hardest thing for me has been isolation. I enjoy being out and about. I’m not sure it’s in my nature to spend a lot of time at home. I currently do not have a lot of choice and I’m hoping that will change sooner than later.

Life Goes On! | Change my life quotes, Go for it quotes, My life ...

 

Growing Up With Broadway

Too shy to be on stage, but happy to watch and dream.

​​”I got a feeling there’s a miracle due gonna come true, coming to me. Could it be? Yes it could. Something’s coming. Something good, if I can wait.” – West Side Story

I was watching an interview with Dame Judi Dench, an actor for whom I have nothing but respect and admiration. She was asked about her favorite medium and she replied, “The stage.” When pressed for a reason, she explained that it meant a great deal to her that in order to see her perform on stage, people had to actually go out and purchase a ticket and then they have to actually go to the theatre. She wanted to perform her best for these people because they truly made an effort — makes a great deal of sense to me. Watch Dame Judi perform “Send in the Clowns,” and you’ll see and hear why she’s a national treasure.

60 principais fotografias e imagens de Judi Dench - Getty Images

 

The Impact Theatre Had on My Development

I grew up in Brooklyn, New York with Broadway as my playground. My father was an Italian immigrant with a blue collar job, but he loved the theatre. My mother, on the other hand, barely tolerated it. Her indifference made no difference to me.

There was a time when I would have chalked my infatuation with Broadway up to my sexuality — that was societal brainwashing. Obviously, people of all sexual orientations, ages, races, and cultures have an equal love of the theatre and for good reason.

My first Broadway show was The Wiz. It is an all black version of the Wizard of Oz. My father took me to see it for my ninth birthday. Stephanie Mills played the lead and she was brilliant — a performance I still consider to be one of the best I have ever seen. The show blew me away; over 50 years later and I still hear the songs in my head. I believe my life lessons mainly came from theatre. The visual spectacle helped me to escape the reality of my own unfortunate childhood.

The second play I went to see was A Chorus Line. There are a dozen themes in this play and each of them spoke to me. I may have been 12 years old when my father took me. I remember my father wiping tears from my eyes during the performance. He had huge, strong hands and I loved when he did that. “At the Ballet” hit me hard and I was never good at holding back my feelings. I wonder to this day if my dad realized I knew I was gay and how ashamed I had been; I hope he knew.

Dozens of shows seemed to have been written with me in mind; at least that what I thought. What it said to me was simply that there were more like me out there and for that I was and am, grateful. It was a lonely world, but at the theatre I felt safe and understood; I still do.

While other teens were saving their money for clothes, video or baseball games, I saved for the theatre. Back then TKTS was a real bargain. I recall seeing Broadway plays for less than $10. It’s unfortunate that young people today, for the most part, cannot afford Broadway theatre tickets. I know there are programs designed to expose young people to the theatre; however, like most things these days, theatre is big business and only the elite can afford it. Fortunately, there are regional theatres all over the States that are much more affordable than the Great White Way (Broadway).  —

In my early twenties I met a New York City couple who attended Broadway shows weekly. They were members of the Theatre Development Fund (TDF). As educators, Ann and Aaron were able to purchase a group of ten tickets at a large discount. Their circle of friends included dozens of people who would buy tickets from them on a first-come first-served basis. It took a lot of time and energy to organize the selling of these tickets and they did it without taking a dime for themselves. We had mutual friends who brought us together often and over the years we became very close. Aaron passed away at age 95 not too long ago. Ann has dementia, but we had a Skype call a few months ago and there were moments where she was her old self; funny and smart. My friendship with Ann and Aaron started at the theatre, however, it extended far beyond that for over 30 years. The common denominator was our love of the theatre; for a long time our lives revolved around shows and eating out. I’m fairly certain I would have only seen a fraction of the shows I saw had it not been for Ann and Aaron; two of the loveliest people I have ever known.

 

Times Square in the 70s and 80s

70s times square | Tumblr

The Theatre District (Times Square) in the 70s and 80s was a pretty scary place. In fact, when I was a teenager, a stranger pulled a knife on me only because I was walking in his path. There were sex shops everywhere and drugs sold on every corner. However, that’s where the Broadway theatres were and nothing could keep me away. I would get a ticket for a show and tell my mother I was going to a friend’s house for dinner. It was a secret world I was reluctant to share. I worked hard for spending money and I didn’t want my mother to know where my money was going; unfortunately, she often took money from me, charging me for room and board when I was a teen. I guess it taught me to be fiercely independent and for that I am grateful.

Times Square today is not what it once was, it has lost it’s grit and unique appeal. I’m afraid Disney has cleaned it up and made it shiney and safe for middle America. It’s probably for the better, but I can’t help being nostalgic. It’s become overcrowded and commercial and no longer appealing to me.

 

Meeting a Famous Composer

The following is a secret I’m not sure I have ever told. I haven’t shared this because I was closeted for many years and I was ashamed of the life I lived prior to coming out. Today, I am way past worrying about being judged.

When I was a young man I went out on several dates with a Catholic priest named Peter — I often wonder what became of Peter. I was a minor, but I knew exactly what I was doing at the time. There may have been an element of the forbidden fruit, but I’ll leave that for another blog. This priest led a double life in New York City and some of his friends were famous in the theatre world. Peter was young, attractive, and flirtatious. He knew how much I loved Broadway musicals and he surprised me by taking me to the home of a world-renowned, Greenwich Village composer. I remember walking down to this composer’s sub-street level apartment and shivering from head-to-toe. I knew at the time that this would be a memory I would hold onto for life. There is a part of me that would like to be more innocent and less jaded.

Peter knocked on the door and this larger than life man invited us in. I recall a large piano in the center of a small living room. There were Broadway show posters everywhere and most of them were his shows. I’ve had natural highs many times throughout my life, however this one, sent me soaring. I could not speak for fear of saying something stupid. I accepted a glass of wine and blushed over his shameless petting. Up to that evening I had never had a stranger show me that much attention, let alone someone famous. Peter knew it was harmless and he knew that he was the one who’d be taking me home.

 

And Then There Was This:

Stephen Sondheim

I had the great pleasure of meeting Stephen Sondheim when I was working in Student Affairs at Marymount Manhattan College in New York City. He is, hands down, my favorite composer. I cannot imagine what my life would have been like without his music and lyrics. This is not hyperbole, I mean every word of it, he is like no other songwriter alive or dead. The MMC theatre department brought him in for a Master Class. I normally do not approach celebrities because I know that no matter what I say, I’m going to sound stupid and behave badly. But in Sondheim’s case I made an exception because of the direct impact he had had on my life.

I asked one of our professor’s to introduce me and she said she’d be delighted. I shook his hand and I said, “Thank you for the many times your music has spoken to me and brought me joy.” Sondheim held my gaze for a moment and said, “It’s been my pleasure.” If there is a God, he resides inside the heart of that man.

Many songs featured in musicals were moving and played a role in my life; however, none as much as “Being Alive.” Raul Esparza played the role of Bobby and sang it in the 2007 Broadway production of Company. These are the lyrics:

Being Alive
Someone to hold me too close.
Someone to hurt me too deep.
Someone to sit in my chair,
And ruin my sleep,
And make me aware,
Of being alive.
Being alive.
Somebody need me too much.
Somebody know me too well.
Somebody pull me up short,
And put me through hell,
And give me support,
For being alive.
Make me alive.
Make me alive.
Make me confused.
Mock me with praise.
Let me be used.
Vary my days.
But alone,
Is alone,
Not alive.…

Coincidentally, a 90th birthday tribute to Stephen Sondheim aired a couple of days ago. What a gift to all of us; you can watch it on Youtube:  #Sondheim90Concert 

 

Theatre’s Impact on Me Today

Broadway and the West End, by way of musicals and dramatic productions, will a destination for me for as long as I can travel. It’s like a dangling carrot I can never imagine going away. These plays speak to me in ways no one can. It’s as if the writers are inside my head and my heart. Whether it is a time of happiness or sadness, I turn to lyrics and dialogue for hope and consolation. It seems unfair that there are many people in the world who will never experience Broadway the way I have. I have to assume that people in other parts of the world have their own Broadway; it is in that truth, I find pleasure.

www.astep.org — A not-for-profit organization designed to introduce and connect underserved children to the arts.

 

“So much of me Is made of what I learned from you. You’ll be with me Like a handprint on my heart.”  — Wicked

A Wicked Story

A number of years ago I was in a relationship with a Spaniard living in Zaragoza, Spain. Alejandro would travel to New York to see me as often as he could. Alex’s plan was to move to New York to be with me when he finished med school. We shared many things in common, however, one of the many things we joked about was his disdain for musical theatre. I would tell him that I was seeing a musical and he would just laugh and tell me to have fun. I have a good friend who invested in Wicked and she invited me to the opening on Broadway; certainly one of the most exciting nights of my life. We attended the after party at Tavern On The Green in Central Park and I got to sit alongside Sarah Jessica Parker, Carol Burnett, Michael Hall and many other big stars. I was euphoric, star struck, and in many ways it felt magical.

I called Alex to share the experience and he said, “Honey, if it’s that good, you have to take me.”

A couple of months later, Alex told me he’d be coming to New York for his birthday and to spend some time with me. I was able to get center orchestra seats for Wicked on his birthday. I made a reservation at a restaurant I knew he would enjoy and kept it from me until the day of the show.

When I told him over dinner, Alex was excited because he’d heard a lot about the show and he knew how much I had enjoyed it. I was fully conscious of his feelings about musicals, but in my heart-of-hearts, I knew this musical would bring him over to my side. Throughout the performance I would glance over and see Alex smiling from ear-to-ear and every so often he’d squeeze my hand or bump knee. His tears and laughter throughout made it even more special for me. During a long standing ovation, Alex whispered in my ear that this was the best birthday of his life. He grabbed my head, turned it with both hands and planted a big kiss on my lips. I was out of my mind elated.

As we continued to stand and applaud, a woman sitting behind me with her ten year old daughter, tapped me on the shoulder and screamed above the applause, “My daughter did not have to see that.”

Of course I knew she was referring to the kiss. Understandably curious, Alex asked me what she’d said. I told him and that’s when I saw his Latin temper unleashed. He held nothing back; letting this woman know what he thought of her and her biased, toxic rage over a kiss. I said nothing. I watched and listened to this man defend our love to this vile stranger. I knew that I loved Alex, but that moment, that night, that unbridled valour, sealed the deal forever.

 

Times Square Today

Dialogue With Yourself

 

Here’s how the conversation might go on any given day:

5:15 a.m.:  Good morning! Where’s Paco (dog)? Paco! Paco! Come and say good morning because I have to get up to pee. Did I set up the coffee last night? You need to brush your teeth. Hey Paco, good morning, what a good boy, yes, yes, yes, yes. No tongue, I told you no tongue. Okay let’s get up. What are you going to do today? I need to blog. It’s Monday, I need to start my blog, but what the fuck do I write about (I have a potty mouth when I talk to myself)? Call Angie to wish her a happy birthday. Oh shit, my back hurts. Stretch stupid! Paco are you hungry? Shit, I didn’t set up the coffee.

Later the same morning:  It’s 11:00 a.m. and I have accomplished absolutely nothing. What is wrong with you, go for a walk.

6:00 p.m.:  You didn’t get everything you wanted to get done, done, but it’s 6:00 p.m. and time for a cocktail. Good stuff? Cheap stuff? Oh what the hell, go for the good stuff.

9:30 p.m.:  Did you floss? I don’t remember flossing? I should floss. I should go to bed. Goodnight Paco.

2:00 a.m.:  get up to pee but don’t wake up. Crap you’re up. Why aren’t those pumpkin seeds helping my prostate? I’m sweaty? Why is it hot?

[Talking to your pet is more like talking to yourself and that’s a good thing.]

“We actually talk to ourselves silently all the time. I don’t just mean the odd “where are my keys?” comment – we actually often engage in deep, transcendental conversations at 3am with nobody else but our own thoughts to answer back. This inner talk is very healthy indeed, having a special role in keeping our minds fit. It helps us organise our thoughts, plan actions, consolidate memory and modulate emotions.” (The Conversation, May 3, 2017)

It’s not like people have not written about this topic before, it’s just that it’s very personal and I want to add my two cents. We all process these kinds of things differently. Some people have always talked to themselves and could not imagine any other way of life. The other end of the spectrum is those who believe you have to be clinically insane to carry on a conversation with yourself. Like most things, most of us are somewhere in between. In order to prepare yourself for this behavior, you have to be:

  1. Willing to accept that it’s okay; normal even.
  2. Open to whatever comes out of your mouth.
  3. Prepared to answer back.

Give it a try, after all, what have you got to lose. Don’t worry, we’re all crazy and the sooner we accept that . . .

 

Out Loud Conversations

There was a time when I would not have considered having an out loud conversation with myself. I would have been way too self-conscious and afraid that I might do it in public. Now, I couldn’t care less. I’m fairly certain that at this stage in my life I’m not going to humiliate myself. But if I’m in a car and I’m by myself, I’ll probably have a little talk. Things like, be careful, don’t go too fast, what are you forgetting — you see where this is going.

When you live with other people and you’re unsure about something, you can just casually mention stuff in passing. When you live alone there is no one around to run things by. So why not ask yourself? The answer is more than likely inside that brain somewhere. When you’re bold enough to practice this behavior, you’ll notice a higher level of self-esteem and a certain pride in your own independence.

Trust in yourself is important for this practice. Do you believe in your own words? Do you practice what you preach? Do you follow your own advice?

Singing to yourself can be very calming. I had a boss who sang gospel songs to herself all day long and she was very centered. So much so that I resented it. I honestly didn’t realize she was doing something healthy for herself. Don’t be your own worst critic — this isn’t a live concert with a sophisticated sound system, belt it out.

Have you noticed that people on the street and in their cars all seem to be talking to themselves these days? Most of them are on their cell phones. Bluetooth devices have made it easy to speak hands free. Now it looks like we’re all talking to ourselves, making it easy to do so with judgment from most.

 

What People Might Think

We humans care way too much about what people think of us. It’s not an easy thing to dismiss or ignore. Have you noticed how many older folks just don’t care. It seems to be something we learn to do over time. When you’re working on providing for your family or building a career, it has to matter. Still, there are things you can do that make little difference to anyone else; talking to yourself might be one of those things. When you come to the realization that what others think no longer matters, it is extremely liberating.

 

The Benefits

A good exercise might be to give it a try. Talk to yourself out loud for a solid week and see how it feels. Are you able to respond? Have you worked out any unresolved issues? Do you feel better? I’ve never been one to feel lonely, but my guess is that if you acknowledge what great company you’re in when you’re in your own company, you’ll feel better and make better decisions. Gaining more self-esteem and holding your head high only makes you more attractive to the world. Tell yourself, “Shoulders back, chest out, stand tall and be proud. Show the world who you are.”

 

When Something Good Becomes a Habit

Humans have a lot of bad habits; I won’t name mine here, but if you’re curious, every blog post reveals a few. The thing is, we can have good habits too. Do it once and it’s just a one-off, do it twice and it’s a repeat, do it many times and it becomes a habit. Make talking to yourself a positive habit (like going to the gym, dressing up and eating superfoods).

 

Is talking to yourself ever harmful?

Talking to yourself is often associated with mental illness, but that is rarely the reason for or cause of self-talk. However, there are some situations where self-talk may be an indication of a psychological problem.

When self-talk is accompanied by self-harm — for example, striking yourself or cutting — then it’s a sign of an emotional problem, Dabney said. As well, if you are engaging in self-talk that involves repetitive phrases, mantras or numbers, and this type of self-talk is disruptive to you or difficult to stop, that can also be an indicator of an emotional problem. In either case, speak to a qualified medical professional for a proper assessment. (Huffington Post, Is it Normal to Talk to Yourself, August 23, 2019)

 

collage photo of woman
Photo by Andrea Piacquadio on Pexels.com

 

Next Week:  Growing Up With Broadway

Caring Too Much or Too Little

Developing a balance between empathy and good health is a formidable goal and this is a good time to work on it.

 

65 Compassionate Empathy Quotes (2019)

 

I have always been a bit too sensitive. I was bullied as a child because I cried easily (and I liked playing with girls . . . and I hated sports). I get the crying part honestly, my dad wept without shame. The problem with feeling intense empathy is that you often feel as if you have the weight of the world on your shoulders. Managing these feelings and mitigating your health and well-being are essential.

 

What it Feels Like

I have been reluctant to look at the number of deaths around the world due to the Coronavirus. Denying a problem exists or refusing to acknowledge it, has long been a defense mechanism. However, in this case I believe empathy matters. I need to be able to experience what is happening all over the world so that I can do my part to help. I’m forcing myself to look at the numbers and think about what people are going through. It’s surreal, it’s painful, it’s difficult and it’s morbid, but it’s necessary. We’ve been told what we can do and we need to listen, learn, and hold ourselves accountable. Doing your part helps you to be empathetic without drowning in sorrow.

A brief story of too much empathy — very recent and still fresh:  When I adopted Paco in January, he had only been found on a country road two weeks prior. He weighed just over five pounds and his bones were protruding everywhere, his fur was extremely matted, and he was deathly ill from a virus. When I saw him for the first time, I wept. Each time I thought about him fighting for his life, alone and abandoned in the woods, I wept. Admittedly, this extreme sensitivity went on for weeks. This is the reason I had to leave my volunteer position at a pet shelter; I had too much empathy. Learning how to compartmentalize my feelings and thoughts was and is, necessary. By the way — Paco has fully recovered and he’s out of danger. I still worry, but it’s under control. The crying has stopped.

 

 Family

The reality of family members who are not as strong as I am or who might be struggling with emotional and/or financial issues is ever-present. How much of their worries are my worries? How much of their suffering can I or should I take on? What can I do to ease the anxiety I impose upon myself? There are a number of considerations when discussing problems with family members. First and most importantly, in some cases, they have families of their own. Therefore, when you get involved, there may be others in your family that are also affected and that complicates matters further. There is a risk of alienating family members who may be embarrassed or who may see things differently.

Most people prefer privacy, even if it means not sharing with their own family. This could be the topic of a whole other blog. I’ll leave it at this:  there are times when it is best to keep family problems at arm’s length. You may have to be clear about that when approached. “Sue, I think it would be better to discuss that with Greg; your husband is my brother-in-law and one of my favorite people in the world, I don’t want him to be angry with me for taking sides.” Sue doesn’t exist. Just an example of the language you may have to call upon when communicating. Remember, most people prefer candor and authenticity. Those who don’t may not deserve your time or energy.

There is always the advice that is unwelcomed. Family members who are not ready or willing to face their problems will sometimes push you away and resent you for getting involved. In these situations, you have to be either willing to handle the confrontation or in some cases ignore the radio silence.

 

Friends

Our friends are our chosen family. We love them dearly and sometimes that love might cause us great pain. When you see a friend in trouble and you cannot help them, it can tear you apart. Two of my friends are alcoholics. One of these individuals will no longer speak to me because I tried to help and he does not want to acknowledge his problem. The other is in treatment and doing well so far. The only way I can live with myself in situations like this (be it a friend or a family member) is to try to help in some way:  support, resource, friend, caregiver, etc. Doing nothing makes me feel useless and more like a failure. On the other hand, if I reach out numerous times and the friend refuses my help, I have to be able to accept that I’ve done all I could do and walk away. Speaking from experience, I’m not insinuating this part is easy; in fact, it may be one of the more difficult things in life you will have to do. Friendship is like any other relationship, empathy is imperative and it must be conveyed delicately. People who are suffering emotionally cannot always handle empathy when you’re feeling it, they may need time to process and prepare. As a friend, you need to understand boundaries and know when it’s the right time to help.

 

Our World

We live in complicated circumstances with over seven billion people inhabiting the planet.  Unfortunately, 734 million of the world’s dwellers are considered to be living in absolute poverty (wikipedia); that’s a lot of people. Horrible reality like this can keep you up at night. The number of people with cancer and no access to care, the number of people in abusive relationships, the number of children without food, the number of refugees without a home, self-serving politicians, and on and on. It is important to consider the difficulties all around you and do what you can to help; however, it is equally important to consider all that you have to be grateful for.

 

How to Manage it So that it Doesn’t Take Over

Meditation is a self-help practice I mention regularly. People often think of it as a waste of time or new agie. For me, it is a way of keeping things in perspective. Sometimes I make life too much about me and I have to remind myself that it is not at all about me. At other times, the weight of everything around me is so difficult to manage, I have to shed some of it by logically thinking it through.

Exercise is one of my top three ways of sorting through life’s difficulties. When you’re overly concerned about everything, you have to have a way to balance the gravity of all of these concerns or it will consume you. Exercise is like a release valve. There is no doubt in my mind that I have developed an addiction to working out. Exercise and chocolate are the only two addictions I can honestly say I embrace without guilt or self-punishment. I do not often give myself a free pass to indulge; therefore, I am grateful for the freedom to just enjoy these two gifts.

Volunteering your time is not a panacea for solving the world’s problems. However, it is a way for you to feel empowered. Everything you do to help will yield rewards.

“Volunteers are not paid — not because they are worthless, but because they are priceless.”

— Sherry Anderson

 

You know as well as I, that no matter how thoughtful you are or healthy you may try to be, your emotional state of mind (mood), often determines how you feel. You might have a good night’s sleep and wake up feeling so much better than the night before. On the other hand, you might do everything right and have a restless night’s sleep and wake up angry at the world. I have learned to just go with it. If you try to push it away or sweep it under the rug, you are likely to either experience it with greater angst or have it rear its ugly head at the most inopportune time. If you breathe and treat yourself kindly during these difficult periods, you will come through the difficulty with less collateral damage.

 

Talk Through it With Someone You Love and Trust

For some, talking through your worries is a learned behavior. Some of us are hesitant to burden others with our problems or confused thoughts. We’re quick to want to help others, but when it comes to our own issues, we retreat and suffer in silence. I’m a big fan or running things by people who are not directly involved and I believe, can be objective. Be sure to ask if it is okay to share. Do not judge or dismiss an individual’s thoughts. You can be certain that if you disrespect a generous listener, you will never be able to solicit advice again.

 

 

“Empathy is the medicine the world needs.”

— Judith Orloff. M.D.

 

Resources:

How to Be More Empathetic (NY Times)

Importance and Benefits of Empathy (Very Well Mind)

 

I hit a milestone with 100 blog posts last week. I wish I had been aware of it, I would have celebrated sooner.

The Value of Education and What I Have Learned

Has My Ph.D. Paid Off?

I was going to subtitle this piece:  Is a Ph.D. Worth the Time & Money? Then I realized how personal and subjective this question is for each individual who has one; therefore, this piece is about my degree.

neon signage
Photo by Ivan Bertolazzi

 

When people learn that I have a Ph.D. in Higher Education Administration, they are often surprised; that should bother me a bit, but it doesn’t. When my self-esteem was at an all time low a few years ago, the one thing I did not doubt was the significance education has had in my life. I am not a scholar, I will never be a scholar, and I never wanted to be a scholar. What I am is curious and ambitious. If I must put myself in a box, these are two boxes I don’t mind being in.

My ambition, from as far back as I can remember, was to make a difference in the world and be better than what my birthright dictated. My mother was a barmaid and my father was an immigrant who worked in a restaurant. As a result of our socio-economic situation, the messages that were relayed to me as a child, were clear:  you will never amount to anything. I should be clear that those messages did not come from my parents. I was fat, closeted and of average intelligence; therefore, my existence was discounted. I did not come from parents who valued education; not because they looked down on it, but as a result of their own upbringings. They didn’t understand it, but I like to think that by the time they passed, they got it.

One of my favorite stories about my dad says it all. My father retired to Florida and lived in a very modest condominium complex with mostly former blue collar North Easterners. They were good, hard working people, proud of their heritage and happy with what they were able to carve out for the later part of their lives. I would visit my father as often as possible. I enjoyed the weather, the environment, and I loved seeing my father relaxed and happy. One morning I was doing laps in the condo swimming pool and my father was sitting near the edge of the pool with his friend Charlie. This was a community of like-minded people who enjoyed meeting the friends and family of their neighbors.

I wasn’t paying much attention to the two men as I concentrated on my laps. Over the sound of my arms slamming the water, I hear my name called out; first softly and then louder and more startling. I raise my head out of the water and see my father motioning me to swim to the far edge of the pool where he and Charlie were sitting. I swim over somewhat frustrated, however, always obedient.

My dad bellows, “I was telling Charlie here about your P.h.C.”

“I don’t have a Ph.C. dad, I have a Ph.D.”

“Oh,” he says, “Is that better than a Ph.D?”

I’m not sure my father ever realized how much his boasting meant to me. The fact that my father didn’t truly understand what my degree meant, did not matter in the least. You might wonder if perhaps he was joking. Although not formally educated, he was not a stupid man. The reason I am fairly certain that he did not really understand my degree, is that he gave me a pretty hard time about continuing to go to college after I completed my bachelor’s. Even though I worked throughout my education, my father thought that I was missing opportunities to make “real money.”  My explanations about wanting to specialize in a specific discipline were, for him, an excuse for staying in school. I believe at one point, he thought that I was avoiding “real work.”

When I finished my Ph.D., he watched me graduate on stage at Carnegie Hall with all of my doctoral regalia; I am fairly certain, it was one of the proudest moments of his life. He might not have understood the educational system and how it worked, but he did know, that his son achieved something worthy of pomp and circumstance.  Having both my parents cheering for me that day, made it all worthwhile; I had always sought their approval and in many ways, I still do.

My mother often embarrassed me by telling my story to anyone who’d listen. I resented her boasting because each time she told the story, I had either acquired awards I had never been awarded or job titles I had never achieved — she embellished without apology. I realize now that for my mother, it was all about living through me. Any success I ever achieved should have been her own success; the only reason it turned out to be me, is that she had many children and that had gotten in her way. My mother thought she was smarter than anyone else and that anything I achieved came from her gene pool. We argued about this a lot. I wonder if she might have ever imagined that it was my own intelligence and ambition that might have gotten me there.

 

How My Degree Changed Me

Well into my five or sixth year of working on my terminal degree, I went into a deep funk. My dissertation advisor was concerned about me and asked me what was troubling me. I told Dr. Smith that I felt as if I was doing hours and hours of research for nought. His response has remained with me throughout my entire adult life.  He told me that in truth, he would probably be the only person who would read every word of my four hundred page dissertation. Actually, he also said that my mother would read it, but he was very wrong about that. He said, “You’re not writing so that you’ll be published or so that you prove your hypothesis, you are writing to document what you have learned and that acquired knowledge will always remain with you. The purpose of this requirement, is to teach you how to think critically. You need to question everything you believe and prove yourself right or wrong.” His words apply to so many things in my life:  my politics, religious beliefs, relationships, values, to name a few.

My family would argue that my education made me part of the liberal elite. Of course I can’t be certain about what they think since they don’t really share their thoughts with me. I get an occasional compliment; usually passive aggressive and back handed. You know the saying, “That which doesn’t kill you . . .”

The biggest part of doctoral work is research:  considering a hypothesis, completing required studies, investigating and reviewing the academic and scholarly perspective, reading and embracing the literary canon. You learn patience and perseverance, you learn laser focus, you learn to trust yourself, you learn how to listen, you learn that small rewards keep you motivated; I had a carrot that dangled in front of me throughout my studies. I wanted to be Dean of Students at a major university and I know that without that degree, it would never happen. After awhile, it wasn’t just a goal, it became an obsession. I imagine in many ways, it was an obsession that might have been applied to something a lot less positive and for that I am grateful.

It didn’t hurt that I was studying at a prestigious university in the middle of New York City. At the time, New York University was highly regarded in the field of higher education administration and I have always felt fortunate to be in the right place at the right time. Had I not been employed at Hofstra University, just outside the city, I may never have learned about a position at NYU which eventually led to my acceptance in the doctoral program.

 

Time

Time is life’s most precious commodity and I’ve often wondered if the time I spent working on my doctorate was time well spent. I have to remind myself that during that time in my life I had a devastating breakup; it was my studies that saved me from going down a deep, dark hole. By keeping my eyes on the prize, I was able to endure a great deal of emotional pain — running helped too. The answer is:  yes, I believe it was worth my time.

 

Opportunities

I am certain that had I not acquired a doctorate, I would have never been hired by the French Culinary Institute; a position that married food and education and turned out to be an opportunity of a lifetime. I was able to practice my craft, work with tremendously talented people, travel extensively, and live in New York City. Opportunities come your way when you make the effort and prove your worth. In our society, a terminal degree opens doors.

 

Money

This is a difficult one to quantify. Clearly, I made more money in my life as a direct result of my doctorate. Would I have been as successful is something I will never know. While I pursued my Ph.D., I had about nine years where I did not earn to my fullest potential –because I was at University. You cannot put a monetary value on education. The time I spend studying may not have been profitable in terms of financial gain; however, all of the less tangible gains add up to something far more valuable than money.

My tuition at NYU was waived because I was employed by the University. If I would have had to pay for my doctorate, the total would have been close to $160,000. If you look at it that way (and I do), I came out on top.

 

Would I Change Anything?

I would have studied less and partied more. I don’t think it would have hurt to get a few more Bs and a few less As. I put way too much pressure on myself and I continue to do so.

“The purpose of life, after all, is to live it, to taste experience to the utmost, to reach out eagerly and without fear for newer and richer experience.”

Eleanor Roosevelt

 

“It is not the years in your life but the life in your years that counts.”

Adlai Stevenson

 

Image result for college party cartoon

 

Why I am Telling My Story

I’ve been thinking a lot about education lately:  why it is so undervalued, who controls who gets to be educated, what one does with knowledge, why we repeat history, etc. I am concerned about the powerful elite who are doing everything possible to prevent a certain sector of society from being educated. Without going into theories which can be debated and debunked, I believe that education is being used as a tool to keep the white elite in power. Power means control and wealth and those who have both, will never freely give it up.

I was born during a time when education was valued by change makers. I was provided with opportunities which no longer exist due to economics and the people in power (i.e., full tuition remission, federal grants, low interest loans). However, knowing what education can do to open your mind and broaden your perspective, makes me sad for those who are no longer provided with these opportunities.

Education should be right up there with healthcare and climate change, as a top priority. Denying basic rights to humankind will be our undoing. If we keep this up, in the end, nobody will win.

 

Two Endnotes:

I am getting a bit of grief for speaking out about what I believe are political crimes. Admittedly, I don’t like that kind of attention; however, I am exercising my free speech rights and hoping to provide some of the facts for those who are willing to listen.

A shout out to Mitt Romney for being true to his faith and to the American people. I disagree with him about most political issues, but in the end what matters is truth. Thank you Mitt; you’ll be remembered for this.

 

My Head Still Hurts

 

Image may contain: 3 people, including Christopher Papagni, people smiling, people sitting, table and indoor
In my sister AnnMarie’s Port St. Lucy home, April 2019. Kat in the middle and AnnMarie on the right.

Image may contain: 2 people, including Christopher Papagni, people sitting and indoor

This is my older sister Kat (short for Kathy, which she doesn’t like to be called). I love writing or calling her ‘my older sister.’ No matter how old we get, Kat will be my older sister. I know when she reads this she’ll say, “You fucker.” I’m going to tell you a story about Kat and me. What I am going to tell you took place 54 years ago, so I can’t swear by some of the details. What I can promise is that it happened and for some reason unbeknownst to me, the incident has come back into my consciousness dozens of times since.

 

A Hard Hit on the Head

I was not a well-behaved child.  Two of my older sisters, AnnMarie seven years older and Kat, six years, pretty much took care of me throughout my youth. My sister Marguerite is older, but she did not live with us; her presence in my life has been significant as she is my Godmother and we share the same father. When I was a small child, my mother didn’t have the time or patience to be a mom. AnnMarie was stern and Kat was happy-go-lucky. They took turns babysitting for me and my younger siblings. I had a lot of energy and I rebelled against authority, I still do — rebel against authority. My sisters knew how to handle me. AnnMarie only had to look at me a certain way and Kat would sweet talk and bribe me. They never had to play good cop, bad cop; as rambunctious as I was, I respected them. I also knew at an early age, that it wasn’t fair that I was dumped in their laps.

Early on, I was their play toy. They diapered me, dressed me up, paraded me around in a baby carriage, and smooched me until I screamed for them to stop.

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I was two years old and it’s a 58 year old photo.

I got older and a bit harder to handle. This particular memory is vivid and somewhat painful and bittersweet. I was about six years old and it was Kat’s turn to babysit. I must have been wired-up and not listening very well because I remember my sister was not her usual cheerful self — keep in mind that if I was six, Kat was 12. Considering all that she was responsible for, a fairly mature 12 year old I’d say. I recall an ultimatum:

Probably something like, “Stop horsing around or I’ll go get AnnMarie.”

I continued to act out and Kat grabbed a glass platter (Kat says it may have been plastic, but I honestly believe it was glass) and broke it over my head. The platter broke into many pieces and I stumbled, a bit stunned, and a little dizzy. Kat must have regretted doing what she did, but I didn’t notice any remorse at the time.

She said, “That shut you up.”

Admittedly it did, but only for a minute and then I got up and said something I have regretted ever since.

“I hope you die in your sleep tonight.” Or something like that.

She told me to go to bed and to close my bedroom door. I’m going to say it was about 6:00 p.m. We were normally sent to bed at about 7:00 p.m.; which I still think was too early. I got under the covers and wept; I wept for a long time. Kat didn’t come in to check on me. I’m sure it was one of those tough love moments I remember so well.

The guilt I felt about what I’d said to my sister tormented me. What if she’d died in the middle of the night? I couldn’t imagine what that would have been like. I actually believed that I had the power to make her die just by saying the words out loud. I knew that the only way to prevent her death would be to apologize to her.

Sometime later that night, I left my bed to see if she was breathing. I tiptoed into her bedroom and saw that she was. Relieved, I shook her shoulder and whispered her name. At that time it was okay to call her Kathy.

“Kathy, I have to tell you something.”

She opened her eyes and said, “What’s up Chris?”

“I’m sorry I told you that I hoped you would die. I love you.”

Tears streamed down my cheeks as I imagined what could have happened had I not gotten to her in time. My sister smiled and lifted the covers, motioning me to climb into bed. I sniffled and wiped the snot from my face with my pajama sleeve and crawled under her blanket. I don’t recall ever sleeping with Kathy before or after, come to think of it.

She pulled me close and said, “I love you too, now go to sleep.”

It was at that moment that I learned about forgiveness and the importance of my words. I don’t believe I have ever uttered anything that hateful again in my 60 years of living. Of course I have been angry and I have said things I regret, but I have never wished death on anyone — well maybe one person, but since millions feel the same way, it doesn’t count. I feel like I was given a pass that night. Either somebody wasn’t listening or some angel from above gave me a reprieve — whatever it was, my sister was spared and I am forever grateful.

As time progressed, Kat was my confidant. When I was bullied at school, it was my sister I cried to; when I thought something bad was happening inside my body, it was Kat whom I told; and when I was ready to tell someone that I was gay, Kat was the first person I shared it with. On Kat’s wedding day, there were three men who could have given her away (her father and two step-fathers), but it was I she asked to escort her down the aisle. When my sister’s only child had a full body cast removed when she was two years old, it was me my sister wanted by her and my niece’s side, at hospital. When my sister was arrested for carrying a gun without a permit, I was her one call from the police station. In my late teens I left home and needed a place to live and my sister took me in; I should also note that I had my Great Dane, Dana with me. I never told my sister that I was in a very bad place back then and that her love and generosity saved my life. She probably knew.

Like most close relationships, our has had its ups and downs. Blame and who has been right or wrong is not important. What matters is that we have a bond that comes from a life of sharing pain and joy. That bond should never be broken or taken for granted.

I have a special bond with each of my surviving siblings. I am closer to some than others; I imagine this is natural. Personalities, daily life, history, all play a part in the symbiosis of our relationships; however, what binds us is love and moments we have shared and will continue to share.

Kat never broke another plate over my head or put a hand on me after that incident. I can’t speak for my sister, but it’s my guess that we both learned a life lesson that day. We are fragile creatures and our time here is limited. I’m at a place in my life where I only want to celebrate our love.

AnnMarie, the stern one, a few years ago. My sister’s strength and steadiness is and always will be an inspiration to me. 

 

 

What in the World?

How does one reconcile, in one’s mind, the hate and corruption one sees throughout the world?

The sad answer is that it’s almost impossible to make it right and all you can do is your best.

 

This past week was a difficult one for me. I wonder if I should even write while I’m feeling so much rage. I don’t consider myself any more virtuous or high minded than anyone else, but I do have a moral compass and it is definitely searching for my true north. I am aware that many people are sick and tired of hearing about corruption and don’t want anything to do with partisan politics. That’s not a good reason for me to shut-up about it. World leaders everywhere are making decisions that affect the lives of many in a truly destructive way. I’m not so naive to think that it is any better or worse than it has ever been, nonetheless, I am discouraged by what I see and hear.

Leaders have been corrupt for centuries; most likely since the very beginning. What I find difficult to swallow, is the absence of concern from the people who are affected by their decisions. We work hard, we take care of one another, and we attempt to create a future for ourselves and our families. However, what we are seeing more and more, is greed and dishonesty among the politicians we put our trust in.

 

What I see

  • I think that as long as these bad actors continue to get elected, apparently by whatever means it takes, this virus will grow bigger and will cause greater harm to the world.
  • Local grassroots leaders may also be corrupt, however, keeping a watchful eye on these politicians is somewhat easier when you can look them in the eye and hold them accountable.
  • We often use the “holidays” as an opportunity to tuck these issues away while we celebrate and escape the news. Taking a break from harsh reality is a good thing, however, politicians count on times like this, hoping we might forget our grievances. Our current administration uses news cycles to deflect from big issues, creating new fires and attempting to bury important stories.
  • The media has always manipulated the truth, spun lies, distorted facts, etc., but lately it seems more like a competition for who can do be better at this game.
  •  I recently decided to listen to those for whom I care a great deal, to hear their point of view and try to better understand their perspective. Their truth is just that and I find it difficult to argue with someone who firmly believes his or her truth.
  • When you feel marginalized, patronized, ignored, and lied to, it’s easy to understand why you might look to a different source for salvation.
  • There have been many studies done (WSJ piece) on the psychological toll the current environment is taking on our lives. The inability to do anything about the chaos and lies, leaves us feeling hopeless and lost (US News piece). Depression, a lack of sleep, anger, hopelessness; it all eventually catches up with you.
  • People have justifiably stopped watching the news or listening to the media. The average person doesn’t know what to believe anymore, and therefore, chooses not to believe anything.

Here is when you add what you see. This is the part that is most interesting. We all see something different because we have different perspectives and histories. Thinking your own perspective is the correct one, is dangerous. It will leave you feeling angry and frustrated. I feel this way almost every day and I have to remind myself to take a step back and breathe.

 

Where It’s All Going

  • Hate to say it, but I think it’s going to get worse before it gets better. The greedy, lying, SOBs, have far too much to lose and they won’t stop until they get want they want; often at our expense.
  • Authoritarian power mongers are winning elections in many countries; their collective power and clout is helping to put them in office and keep them there. Then of course there are the dictators who gain power by other means. I don’t necessarily see these men as more dangerous than those who are elected.
  • Some leaders use fear, lies and deceit, to get elected and stay in office. It appears that facts and truth is not enough to disprove their rhetoric.
  • There are movements all over the world to stop these hacks. There are also people and organizations putting millions of dollars into the hands of smart leaders who can, at the very least, slow down corruption.
  • Young people, in greater numbers, seem to be joining the conversation lately and that’s a good thing.
  • Sometimes we take three steps forward and six steps back.
  • I truly hate feeling this way, because it’s already pretty dire, but I believe the worst is coming. I don’t believe we are at our breaking point just yet. I don’t think we are capable of wrapping our heads around just how bad it can get. Our optimism can blind us.
  • I think climate change will be more catastrophic than we ever imagined. The rain forests, our oceans, oxygen levels, fossil fuels, dwindling natural resources, garbage, plastics, etc. — way too complicated for the average person to comprehend. We are at a point in mankind’s development where facing the reality of the damage we are causing to our fragile planet, is imperative. Denying, defraying, and hiding the truth, will only hasten our demise. I’m not so much worried for myself, but for our children and their children. Closing our eyes and ears is not the answer; the next generation will pay the price. In the past, the cost was not quite so clear. The world population is higher than it’s ever been and getting bigger.
  • Optimism is a good thing, but using it as a way to deny reality, is dangerous. It is human to be hopeful. It is human to see the good in people. It is human to protect and preserve one’s self, and it it also human to repeat history. We need to wake-up and consider the future.

Thanksgiving has always been my favorite holiday. Being in Portugal, where they naturally do not celebrate Thanksgiving, was not a good thing for me. Next year I need to either be with friends and family or create a Thanksgiving feast in Portugal. I find myself going down a rabbit hole of negativity and deep concern.

 

Sparing You and Me Both

I’m going to stop here and state, that I am aware that what I am writing about is fairly negative and seemingly fatalistic. I am normally upbeat, positive and hopeful. I hate that I don’t feel that way lately. I’m not depressed, unhealthy or lonely. I’m sensing a great deal of concern from average people who feel that their hands are tied behind their backs. So the big question is, what can you do to change the world so that it’s a better place for our children? I’m in awe of Jane Fonda who fights for all of us each day. At 82 years old, it would be easy for her to enjoy her wealth and abundance. She and others like her (i.e., Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter) inspire me and move me to action.

A friend of mine has being doing his part to lift the spirits of those around him by posting positive quotes on his Facebook page. I came across this one just the other day:

“The biggest obstacle to changing the world is the believe that we can’t.”

— Marianne Williamson

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Photo by Rebecca Zaal on Pexels.com

If it Were My Last 24 Hours on Earth

“No one here gets out alive.”

— Jim Morrison

 

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Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Not to worry, not checking out anytime soon, just reminding myself how fragile life can be. The last thing I want to do is hurt anyone; therefore, I think it’s best for me to respond in the abstract and not name names.

What if you knew that you were going to die and you had 24 hours or less left to live? Would you want to be surrounded by those you love? Would you run away and hide from everyone? Would you tell people you cared about? Would you share things you have been holding back? Would you look back at memories? Would you end your life sooner in order to control the situation?

These are the kinds of questions I ask myself when considering just how finite life is.  And by the way, the questions come up occasionally, not every day. There are statistics that guide us when we consider our lifespan. There are formulas based on how long your parents lived. Then there are calculations based on lifestyle. Genetics sometimes come into play. However, an accident may make all of those theories insignificant and irrelevant.

I had a pretty bad accident a couple of years ago that made me question life, death and how I feel about both. Up until the accident, I was fairly certain that I would grow old and cranky. If I’m going to be honest, I have to say I’m well on my way.

I attended a dinner party a few days ago and raised my blog topic for this week. It’s interesting to hear what people have to say in a relaxed social setting. I don’t usually share my own thoughts until after I’ve heard from others. As with any difficult subject, some people prefer to avoid the matter altogether and this time was no different. One of the things I love about people is how very unique we all are. It’s for this reason that I try my best not to judge. Our prospective can be polar opposite based on things like upbringing, religious beliefs, the truth we hold on to, and so forth. I would be untruthful if I didn’t admit to feeling strongly about my own beliefs; the power of personal conviction is essential for many reasons. Keeping that in mind, I don’t claim to be right, but I do think that what I am espousing is true for me; sometimes, that’s all that truly matters.

I posed the question to a small group of people sitting at the table after lunch:

If you knew you had 24 hours or less to live, what would you do? 

The answers I got were interesting and understandable:

“I wouldn’t change anything; I’d want it to be a normal day.”

“I wouldn’t tell anyone because all they would do is cry and pity me.”

“I would be with a very small group of people I love very much.”

“I wouldn’t do very much because I would want time to slow down. When you do a lot of things, time speeds up.”

“I might consider ending my life sooner — when I decided it should end.”

“I would have a couple of conversations I have been avoiding.”

“Why, do you know something I don’t know?”

The thing is, do we truly know how we would behave until we are actually in a particular life altering situation? I could easily say I wouldn’t tell anyone that I was going to die, but in truth, if I knew it was the end and I became extremely emotional or scared, I might need to tell or want to tell someone.

What follows are some thoughts on why we live our lives as if there is no expiration date:

I love this poignant comic included in Brian Lee’s piece on living life as if we’re never going to die at Lifehack. Check out www.zenpencils.com.DALAI-LAMA-answers-a-question

We are complex creatures with hopes, fears, frailties and misgivings. Our highly developed brains allow us to tuck away thoughts and focus on things that make us feel good; I should note that some of us are better at this than others. We often behave as if our daily actions do not have consequences for the future. Vices and health related toxins are often imbibed or eaten without concern for longevity. It’s a curious human occurrence considering that most of us would like to grow old. So what drives us to recklessness? It’s as if there is a little switch in our brains that we choose to turn off when desire overpowers restraint.

It is no accident that the precise timing of our death is unknown. Imagine the chaos and emotional instability that would ensue. I think that animals have a better sense of death and what it means than we do and, therefore, have better dying coping skills. I’ve been with several dogs at the end of their lives and the sense of peace and acceptance I felt from these animals was both life affirming and beautiful. We live and we die and that is the true miracle of life.

As I consider complicated mechanisms for denial and delusion, it once again brings me to how I might deal with knowing when my own demise is just around the corner. Here are some thoughts that come to mind (not necessarily in order of importance):

  1. There is no doubt in my mind that I would want to truly enjoy the wonders of the earth. The sunrise and sunset continue to amaze me and I take both in as often as possible. The smell of flowers and the feel of earth between my fingers, gives me great pleasure. I can only imagine that knowing these wonders would no longer be accessible would heighten my desire to experience them.
  2. The people in my life who have shown me love and devotion would be on my mind at the end; I would hope that these cherished few would be nearby. I would want to let them know how much I love and appreciate them. I still do not know that I would share the inevitability of my passing. We all know that we should be showing our love and appreciation often, not waiting until we are sick or dying.
  3. I have loved food since I could smell my dad’s pizza in the oven when I was a wee toddler. My relationship with good food has never waivered and I hope I remain true to my passion until the day I die. I have been reading research about taste buds and how our sense of taste diminishes with age. I refuse to believe that this applies to me. My father and aunts and uncles on my father’s side, all enjoyed savory dishes well into their 80s. If I knew that my death was near, I would want to devour my favorite foods:  shellfish, pasta and cake and a nice red of course. I know that knowing it was almost over would probably have an effect on my appetite; however, knowing how I sometimes eat and drink to feel better, I imagine I’d be hungry and thirsty. A very expensive armagnac would be a must have.
  4. Being present and cherishing every moment of what life I have left, would likely be my mode of thinking and feeling. I have never feared death, therefore, I’m fairly certain i would be at peace with it.
  5. I would want to be comfortable; the right temperature, the right place, and the right people around me.
  6. I would probably want to be on a good dose of xanax.

I have had many people in my life pass:  my grandparents (three before I was even born), my parents, several siblings, close friends, teachers, co-workers and acquaintances. My mother’s brother died of a massive heart attack in his 50’s; how could I not consider the possibility of dying at anytime? Personally, I don’t find this morbid or sad.

Long ago I decided that if I had a fatal illness, I would travel (if I could) to a place where you could choose to die with dignity. If this were to happen, I would have an opportunity to decide how I would spend my final hours; all of this provides great comfort. I am not obsessed with dying, I am focused on living and making sure my quality of life is the best it can be.

The purpose of this blog is twofold. First, it is my hope that it will get you thinking about how you live your daily life; what are your priorities and do you consider and cherish the people and things that bring you the greatest happiness. Second, it is my belief that we as individuals have the power to change the course and direction of our lives. I felt stuck, misguided and unhappy in Maine. It wasn’t so much the place or the people, but an environment that was too comfortable and unchallenging. I moved to Europe in order to reboot, recharge, and start afresh. It’s not right for everyone, but it has taught me more about myself than I anticipated. Self-discovery and change can be as exciting as a new relationship; driving gleefully into the future with renewed hopes and dreams. Fear is what usually holds us back. Fear of the unknown, fear of failure, fear of death. Put all of your fears aside and go for it. The unknown can be a wonderful and rewarding future. Focus on the image of a door opening to a paradise you never imagined existed; more often than not, we have the ability to manifest our dreams. I choose to manifest those dreams while I am still alive.

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