Not too long ago, I possessed a determined drive to hang up the spurs. I set a goal, and we put a plan in motion to reach that goal by age 60 — a little more than a year and a half from now. What happened?
Well, by design the carrot remains just out of reach. Purchasing the Cape house has necessitated some adjustments in the form of pushing out that goal. Right now I’m saying somewhere between 62 and 65. It sounds much better than saying that no matter how close the carrot seems, it will never get closer.
…until, that is, the rope loosens and the carrot falls from the stick. At that point, the goal will finally be achieved. And then?
I should start out by stating that I don’t believe in The Afterlife, nor do I believe that dreams are symbolic “messages” intended to be decoded into urgent advice. In this particular case (as well as nearly all cases), I’m fairly certain that my mind grabbed a few fresh items out of the refrigerator of my subconscious and tossed them in the microwave for my non-waking amusement.
Mary and I were in Mexico, as we often are in January, driving along a mountainous stretch of Highway 1 between La Paz and Los Barriles on our way to visit friends in La Ribera. The road is far more treacherous than one would expect for a national highway, winding its way through the Sierra Lagunas with switchbacks and steep inclines. Recent rains had washed out sections of road, requiring careful maneuvering around cracked pavement. And then, on the other side of a hairpin turn, there was no road at all. Slamming on the brakes, we stopped our rental car just in time. Unfortunately the truck behind us was not as lucky. And because our tiny Nissan was all that stood between the truck and the precipitous fall below, down we all went.
Apart from the expected swearing, I made sure to tell Mary that I loved her. The last thing I said was “Poor Tito”.
Next stop: The White Room. No black curtains, no windows, and no walls or sources of light that I could find, and yet it was obnoxiously bright. A perfect cliche, I thought.
Behind us, a man who wasn’t previously in the room cleared his throat. He was holding an iPad, which was — of course — white.
“Paul and Mary” he said matter-of-factly.
“I assume we’re…”
“And are we in…?”
“Heaven?” he interjected, somewhat embarrassed. “Well, no. It doesn’t quite work like that. Consider this a brief introduction to what’s going to happen next.”
“What is happening next?” I asked impatiently.
“I’m getting to that,” he replied, exasperated. “Do you remember your last words?”
“They probably weren’t very nice,” I recalled.
“We told each other ’I love you’”, Mary added.
“And that was very touching,” the man said, trying not to sound sarcastic. “Your last words were ’Poor Tito’”.
We looked at each other with alarm. “What’s going to happen to Tito?” we asked.
“Tito is fine,” the man said.
“But going forward,” I sputtered. “And how will word get back?”
“Calm down,” the man said, although not too calmly.
We carried on for another minute or two, while the man fidgeted awkwardly.
“In a minute,” he continued, “you’re going to walk through that door…”
We turned around and saw a plain white doorway that wasn’t there a few seconds ago.
“It will be 2026, 8 years from now. You’re living full time in Centerville. Paul retired a year ago, at which point you sold the house in Cochituate.”
“Tito is a healthy thirteen, right at your side.”
It was a good dream.
Readers of this blog surely know by now that I’ve got an obsession with identity. The fact that I was raised vanilla-white in a homogeneous New York City suburb — unaware for years of the dirty secret of my ethnic background — has resonated with me as an adult in ways I hadn’t expected.
Here’s what I learned growing up: 3 of my grandparents were born in Puerto Rico, the fourth in the Philippines. Beyond that, a combination of poverty and poor record keeping painted a cloudier picture — despite the heroic efforts of my sister-in-law’s mother to dig into our family tree. I did learn that my maternal grandfather was illegitimate and that my paternal great-grandfathers were day laborers, and that they and their ancestors spent several generations in Puerto Rico. My father had been fairly certain that they were on the island for only the briefest time after emigrating from Spain, and that they were doctors and lawyers. A clearer, less glamorous portrait had begun to emerge.
On a lark, my wife and I thought it might be fun to engage one of those DNA analysis services. Crudely put, you spit into a tiny plastic test tube and mail it to a lab, which would then untangle the double-helix that represents your unique genetic fingerprint.
I should say from the onset that I have what I would describe as a healthy skepticism for these nascent science-for-hire companies, so I thought at best that they would confirm the obvious and then provide some off-the-wall “surprises” that would render their analysis laughable. Instead, they served up some food for thought.
That my DNA is two-thirds European wasn’t surprising, nor that the majority of that was “Iberian”. I was surprised to see 4.5% Italian, not to mention 3.6% Northwestern European. Lutefisk puttanesca, anyone? I should have anticipated 9.2% Southeast Asian thanks to my Filipina great-grandmother, but the 10.1% Native American took me completely by surprise.
I can think of a couple of explanations. One is that my great-grandfather, an American sailor from upstate New York, possessed some Native American blood. More probable is that one or more of my Puerto Rican ancestors was the product of marriages between Spanish settlers and indigenous Taino women. Research shows that most Puerto Ricans (and their diaspora) have between 10 and 20% indigenous DNA, so that becomes another plausible theory.
I still believe that DNA research in its current state raises more questions than it answers, but the type of curiosity it inspires is a good one. Or to put it another way, there can never be too many different ingredients in a good gumbo.
Vieques is a tiny island about 8 miles away from the larger island of Puerto Rico. Its uniquely isolated geography makes it an ideal retreat for tourists, but also renders it particularly vulnerable to a natural disaster like Hurricane Maria. While the main island of Puerto Rico is beginning to see some relief – not without many setbacks – Vieques likely won’t see power restored until next year.
This conundrum is compounded by a Puerto Rico economy that played fast and loose with investment dollars until the recession of 2008. While the U.S. mainland recovered over time, Puerto Rico never did. As a territory and not a state, the island couldn’t restructure its debt, instead continuing to pay crippling interest and ultimately defaulting on a key loan payment earlier this year. The back-to-back punches of Irma and Maria couldn’t have come at a worse time.
Vieques has an additional burden not of its own making. The U.S. Navy used the island as a bombing range for decades, promising a comprehensive cleanup once the bombing stopped but ultimately leaving the task at the mercy of budgetary cuts and general indifference toward an increasingly forgotten island. As a result, islanders who don’t flee to the mainland face the possibility of contamination from toxins exposed by the storms.
Mary and I have visited the island twice and loved the laid-back tropical vibe there: fresh mangoes ripe for the picking and wild horses trotting down the streets. The high incidence of cancer directly correlated to unexploded ordnance behind miles of barbed wire kept us from seriously considering it as a place we might want to spend our retirement years.
Native islanders don’t have the luxury of this sort of planning. Many are packing up and leaving – for good. They don’t deserve this.
His name wasn’t “Chuck”. It wasn’t even his nickname, truth be told, but rather a disparaging sobriquet we’d hurl at him whenever he uncorked an errant throw. By Junior High School age he was a fairly good athlete, which made it all the more inexplicable when a toss made during a simple game of catch in the street somehow found its way through our dining room window. “Way to go, Chuck!”
There were quite a few of those instances where it didn’t look like he was paying any attention to where the ball might land. The rest of the time, however, he’d make a spectacular catch, followed by a pinpoint accurate throw. He’d be the star of the game, and everyone wanted him on their team.
When I was a sophomore in college, he and two high school friends crossed a busy highway not too far from our house to get to a 7-Eleven store. A car sped past, and the two friends quickly stepped back. Not Chuck. He was hit at full speed and dragged beneath the car for some distance until it stopped. He was killed instantly.
Hours later, his body was still in the road, cordoned off by police. His mother was brought to the scene to identify the body, but became hysterical as she got close and had to be taken away, shouting “Not possible! Not possible!”
The funeral was a somber affair, sparsely attended by neighbors who didn’t know what to say. The family moved away not too long after that. No one stayed in touch.
I’ve been reluctant to weigh in on the issue of “taking a knee” ever since Colin Kaepernick first began his silent protest in August 2016. For one, I don’t watch football, so I don’t have much emotional investment in the conversation as it pertains to the sport.
I also come from a law enforcement family. My father was a police officer in New York for 30 years, and my brother is an LAPD veteran. I believe in the rule of law, and have the empty rap sheet to prove it.
On the other hand, my pale complexion could also have something to do my cozy relationship with the men in blue. And this was Colin Kaepernick’s point. He was protesting what is widely perceived as unequal treatment under the law, as is his first amendment right.
That an NFL game wasn’t the proper platform for protest is a valid point, and Kaepernick has paid dearly for it. Team owners have made their position clear by essentially blacklisting him; he hasn’t played a game since.
And then politicians got involved, unwittingly shining a spotlight on a nasty rash that wouldn’t go away, that rash being racism.
Enter the Leader of the Free World, calling anyone who would dare to kneel during the National Anthem a “son of a bitch” who should be “fired”. Predictably, this had a galvanizing effect on many NFL players, but also on college football players, an entire high school football team, and a major league baseball player. It suddenly seems that everyone needed to take a public stand on the issue – to kneel or not to kneel.
If this was Trump’s goal, it succeeded spectacularly, but if not, he might need to keep his nose and ego out of football, and focus on helping this nation. Might I suggest starting with Puerto Rico, an island populated by 3.4 million Americans and reeling from a catastrophic hurricane, exacerbated by a crippled economy and infrastructure. It might not drive up ratings, but it would be the right thing to do.