Why Harry Chapin Still Matters, Part II.

Singer/Songwriter Harry Chapin as a Delegate to the 1976 Democratic National Convention.

Why Harry Chapin Still Matters, Part II.

(World Class musicians Bruce Springsteen and Billy Joel admired Harry Chapin as an artist, and still revere him, to this day, as a humanitarian with growing global impact. You can read Part I of this story right here: https://medium.com/@stevevillano/why-harry-chapin-still-matters-part-i-e2170c28135a

40 years ago, the first and only United States Presidential Commission on Hunger delivered a scorching report on global hunger, with specific recommendation on how to reduce food insecurity among tens of millions of people in the U.S., and around the world. Singer/Songwriter Harry Chapin and his “one person think tank” Sandy Chapin, were among the driving forces behind the creation of this unique Commission, which saw it’s practical recommendations and visionary goals suffocated with the election of Ronald Reagan, and the rise of the Far Right in the United States in 1980.

Now, some 39 years after his death, Harry Chapin’s work against hunger and food insecurity matters more than ever before, as the COVID pandemic has dramatically deepened hunger and food insecurity in communities across this country and around the world. This week, “Harry Chapin: When In Doubt, Do Something,” the first documentary about Harry Chapin’s brief, but impactful, life was released nationwide to coincide with World Food Day. On October 30, the film will be available for streaming on Apple, Amazon, and through TV VOD at www.harrychapinmovie.com. You can see the two-minute trailer to the Chapin documentary right here:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yM3u1brdmpw&feature=youtu.be)

*****

To Harry Chapin, as to his idol Pete Seeger — both of whom had similar family backgrounds steeped in left-wing idealism and fathers who were gifted musicians — commitment to a cause and to family, was what truly made life worthwhile. Bruce Springsteen, who has picked up the mantle of leadership in his work with WHYHunger and the fight against poverty and income inequality, reinforced how rough a road it is to making lasting social change.

In his comments at the December 7, 1987, Carnegie Hall Tribute where Harry Chapin was posthumously awarded a Special Congressional Gold Medal for his Humanitarian work — only the fourth musician in US history to ever be so honored, along with Irving Berlin and George & Ira Gershwin — Springsteen talked about the legacy of an activist artist like Chapin, and how “ Harry instinctively knew it would also take more than love to survive; it was going to take hard work, with a good, clear-eye on the dirty ways of the world.”

In his own autobiography Born to Run: Bruce Springsteen (Simon & Schuster Paperbacks, NY, 2016, by Bruce Springsteen) Springsteen writes about his own “clear-eyed look at the dirty ways of the world,” after beginning his work with food banks and anti-poverty groups around the country in the mid-1980’s:

“I never had the frontline courage of many of my more committed musical brethren. If anything, over the years, too much has been made of whatever service we’ve provided. But I did look to develop a consistent approach. Something I could follow year in and year out, and find a way to assist the folks who’d been hit hardest by systematic neglect and injustice. These were the families who’d built America and yet whose dreams and children were, generation after generation, considered expendable. Our travels and position would allow us to support, at the grassroots level, activists who dealt, day to day, with the citizens who’d been shuffled to the margins of American life.” (P. 328).

At the Carnegie Hall Chapin Tribute concert in 1987, Springsteen acknowledged that Harry was one of those with such relentless “front-line courage.” In fact, Harry was living the line he wrote in his own story song “The Parade’s Still Passing By” about Phil Ochs, the Civil Rights activist and anti-war folk singer who rivaled Bob Dylan for a time in the 1960’s, and killed himself in 1976, at the age of 35: “your greatest gift and the curse you lived with was that you could always care.”

Ochs had traveled to Hazard, Kentucky, to perform for the families of striking coal miners in 1963; to Mississippi in 1964 as part of the Caravan of Music to support the Freedom Fighters throughout the South; to Chicago, in the summer of 1968, to participate in demonstrations against the War in Vietnam at the Democratic National Convention; and to Chile, in 1971, following the election of Democratic Socialist President Salvador Allende to perform with the great Chilean political activist and folksinger, Victor Jara.

Och’s motivating mantra (There But For Fortune: The Life of Phil Ochs, by Michael Schumacher, University of Minnesota Press edition, Minneapolis, MN, 2018) could have been written by Harry Chapin, especially since both devoted significant portions of their careers, and fortunes, to fighting poverty:

“ I have come to believe that this is, in essence, the role of the folksinger…I feel that the singer almost has a responsibility with political and social involvement. You can’t look at folk music as simply an element of show business, because it’s much deeper and more important than that.” (p. 74)

Harry’s cauldron of creativity and his own curse — similar to, but far more lasting that Phil Ochs’ — was the degree to which he cared about others, how much he desperately drove himself, and how determined he was to make his time on earth matter, on the “frontlines,” and well beyond.

So when Tom Chapin, the younger brother closest in age to Harry, got a call on that July day in 1981, from the Nassau County, Long Island, cop who recovered Harry’s charred body near the Jericho exit of the busy Interstate 495, he knew something wasn’t right.

“What’s your relation to the deceased?” the police office asked.

Tom was taken aback. “ Deceased?”

Someone had died in a terrible car accident on the L.I.E. and his wallet was incinerated, destroying all of the victim’s ID.

“We have a body here, and the only way we can identify it is by this pocket watch we found on him with a name inscribed on it,” the Nassau County Cop said.

“What does it say, “ Tom asked, fearful that he already knew.

“It says: “From the Flint Voice. To a great American, Harry Chapin,” the cop said.

Tom Chapin felt as if he had been punched in the stomach, and that the world stopped. He knew that Harry always carried a cherished pocket watch given to him by Michael Moore, the documentary filmmaker, before Moore made any films or was known beyond Flint, Michigan. As a pushy 22-year old, Moore had thrust himself into Harry’s face backstage at intermission of a 1976 Grand Rapids, Michigan concert, begging Chapin to do a benefit for his fledgling, muckraking publication, the Flint Voice.

“He said, ‘sure,’ I’ll do it,” Moore told a crowd at the Huntington, N.Y., Book Review bookstore in October, 2011, some 30 years after Chapin’s death, “and two months later he came to Flint to do a benefit concert for us. Harry came for five years, every year — even when Flint was down and out — sometimes doing two to five concerts a year. When Harry died it sent shock waves through the people of Flint because we kind of adopted him.”

What Moore didn’t learn, until years later, was that it was the inscribed pocket watch he gave to Harry Chapin out of gratitude for his generosity, that enabled his brother Tom to identify the body. Chapin’s simple act of human connection, of wanting to improve life for the people of Flint, Michigan; his great act of love for a cause championed by another idealistic organizer, and his spirit of making the world a bit better, had survived the fire, even though his body had not. It was a metaphor for how Harry’s social justice work lived on, longer than his 38 years on earth.

“Yes,” Tom said to the cop after he finished reading the inscription on the pocket watch. “I’m Harry Chapin’s brother.”

“Then you may want to come down to the Nassau County Medical Center and identify the body,” the cop said.

The shock of Harry’s death spread slowly, stubbornly, with each call Tom Chapin made, as if, not even the truth could believe itself. Family and friends flocked to the Chapin home in Huntington Bay, to be with Sandy Chapin and her children — the youngest of whom, Jason, Jen and Josh, were 17, 10 and 8 ½ years old. Fans flooded the band shell at Eisenhower Park in East Meadow for a benefit concert to fight hunger that Harry Chapin was scheduled to give that same night, refusing to leave for hours, refusing to believe that the news they heard was real. The day after Harry’s death, thousands of people spontaneously showed up in downtown Flint, Michigan, to pay their respects to someone who’s “greatest gift and the curse he lived with was that he always cared,” about them, and people like them.

The profound and prolonged reaction to Harry Chapin’s sudden death, and the work of WHYHunger and Harry Chapin Food Banks around the country over the next four decades to pull people out of poverty and make millions of families less food insecure, was, and continues to be, a reminder of why Harry’s life mattered, well beyond his music, and still does.

Yet, performing artists like Billy Joel, considered a consummate musician and songwriter who has received every conceivable musical honor, along with selection into the Rock & Roll and the Songwriters’ Halls of Fame, had the highest praise for Harry’s artistry, as well as his activism.

“He wrote the best story songs,” said the singer/songwriter from Hicksville, Long Island, who wrote some pretty good songs himself. “ A lot of people said to me, ‘you wrote Piano Man?’ I thought it was a Harry Chapin song.”

A slight grin brightened Billy Joel’s face, in the sunny front section of his motorcycle shop in a town known as Oyster Bay, Long Island. “No I wrote that, I would say. Harry’s songs were about human beings, humanity. Whether his career was big enough, that’s not important. It was his impact. And he had an impact upon other songwriters that was all positive, all to the good.”

So, the story of Harry Chapin’s life is a love story, actually; a love story as big and boisterous and unbounded as Harry was ; a love story for his family, for his fellow human beings, and for life itself.

Mario Cuomo on Religious Freedom: It’s Not Only for Amy Coney Barrett.

Mario Cuomo’s Notre Dame Speech Points the Way for Democrats Today.

The Senate Judiciary Committee Hearings underway to consider the nomination of Judge Amy Coney Barrett to the United States Supreme Court are shaping up to be a visceral battle over the direction of justice in this country for decades to come.

Democrats, in addition to protesting a sham process occurring while a record number of 9 million Americans have already voted in a presidential election year, are focusing on Judge Barrett’s extremist writings on the Affordable Care Act, Roe v. Wade, same sex marriage and the rights of felons to own guns.

Republicans are accusing Democrats of being anti-Catholic, despite the fact that the Democratic nominee Joe Biden, a devout Catholic, would be, if elected, only the second Catholic to become President. JFK was the first in 1960, despite virulent opposition from conservative, non-Catholic Christians — the same bigoted voices, led by the KKK in the 1920’s, which vilified another Catholic candidate, Governor Al Smith of New York.

Yet, another Catholic Governor from New York has given Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee, as well as Joe Biden, a well-reasoned, deeply religious and constitutional blueprint for rebutting the nomination of a religious extremist, threatening to impose her narrow, out-of-the-mainstream beliefs on Americans of all faiths — including a majority of Catholics.

In fact, the latest Pew Research Center’s study on Catholic Attitudes in U.S. Politics, released one month ago, found that while registered Catholic voters are evenly divided between Republicans (48%) and Democrats (47%), 59% of Republican Catholics support Same-Sex Marriage, while 76% of Democratic Catholics do so. Even where political differences do emerge among Catholics on the issue of abortion, 77% of Democratic Catholics support Roe v. Wade, and are joined by 37% of registered Republican Catholics on the issue — a combined total that is a clear majority of mainstream Catholics, regardless of political affiliation.

Rather than avoiding the issue of Judge Barrett’s religious beliefs being so far outside even the Catholic mainstream, the arguments against just such extremism were clearly spelled out by former New York State Governor Mario Cuomo, in his speech at the University of Notre Dame, in September, 1984 — the last time another pro-choice woman — a practicing Catholic — was running for Vice-President.

Cuomo’s speech, entitled “Religious Belief and Public Morality: A Catholic Governor’s Perspective” is even more pertinent to today’s debate, then it was 36 years ago. He fearlessly tackles the issue of religious freedom head on:

“I protect my right to be a Catholic by preserving your right to believe as a Jew, a Protestant, or nonbeliever, or as anything else you choose. We know that the price of seeking to force our beliefs on others is that they might someday force theirs on us. That freedom is the fundamental strength of our unique experiment in government.”

“. . . a good part of this nation understands — if only instinctively — that anything which seems to suggest that God favors a political party or the establishment of a state church is wrong and dangerous.”

“Way down deep the American people are afraid of an entangling relationship between formal religions — or whole bodies of religious belief — and government. Apart from constitutional law and religious doctrine, there is a sense that tells us it’s wrong to presume to speak for God or to claim God’s sanction of our particular legislation or his rejection of all other positions. Most of us are offended when we see religion being trivialized by its appearance in political throwaway pamphlets.”

(Had Mario Cuomo been alive today, he might have added, “or seeing religion trivialized by a politician holding up a bible in front of a church for a photo op.”)

Cuomo’s Notre Dame speech continued:

The American people need no course in philosophy or political science or church history to know that God should not be made into a celestial party chairman. To most of us, the manipulative invoking of religion to advance a politician or a party is frightening or divisive…the American people are leery about large religious organizations, powerful churches, or synagogue groups engaging in such activities — again, not as a matter of law or doctrine, but because our innate wisdom and democratic instinct teaches us these things are dangerous.”

“When should I argue to make my religious value your morality? My rule of conduct your limitation?….I believe I have a salvific mission as a Catholic. Does that mean I am in conscience required to do everything I can as Governor to translate all my religious values into the laws and regulations of the State of New York or the United States? Or be branded a hypocrite if I don’t?. . .Must I, having heard the Pope renew the church’s ban on birth control devices, veto the funding of contraceptive programs for non-Catholics or dissenting Catholics in my state? I accept the church’s teaching on abortion. Must I insist you do? By law? By denying you Medicaid funding?”

Cuomo continued:

“. . . Catholic public officials take an oath to preserve the Constitution. . . and they do so gladly. Not because they love what others do with their freedom, but because they realize that in guaranteeing freedom for all, they guarantee our right to be Catholic; our right to pray…

“. . . there are those who say there is a simple answer to all these questions; they say that by history and practice of our people we were intended to be — and should be — a Christian country in law. But where would that leave the nonbelievers? And whose Christianity would be law, yours or mine? The “Christian nation” argument should concern –even frighten — two groups: non-Christians and thinking Christians.”

“. . . agnostics who joined the civil rights struggle were not deterred because that crusade’s values had been nurtured and sustained in Black Christianchurches. Those on the political left are not perturbed today by the religious basis of the clergy and lay people who join them in the protest against the arms race and hunger and exploitation.”

In his brilliant summation, Mario Cuomo issued a clarion call for a complete redefinition of the “Right to Life,” emphasizing it after birth, especially in the areas of healthcare, hunger-relief, housing and education:

“Approval or rejection of legal restrictions on abortion should not be the exclusive litmus test of Catholic loyalty. We should understand that whether abortion is outlawed or not, our work has barely begun; the work of creating a society where the right to life doesn’t end at the moment of birth, where an infant isn’t helped into a world that doesn’t care it it’s fed properly, housed decently, educated adequately, where the blind or retarded child isn’t condemned to exist rather than empowered to live.”

Mario Cuomo words, and actions, empower Democrats to stand up for religious freedom, and for a real-world “Right-to-Life” that begins at birth.

Why Harry Chapin Still Matters, Part I.

Singer/Songwriter Harry Chapin as a Delegate to the 1976 Democratic National Convention.

Why Harry Chapin Still Matters, Part I

(40 years ago, the first and only United States Presidential Commission on Hunger delivered a landmark report on global hunger, aimed at reducing food insecurity among tens of millions of people in the U.S., and around the world. One of the driving forces behind the creation of this unique Commission and it’s work was singer/songwriter Harry Chapin, who created World Hunger Year (WHYHunger) five years earlier with former Catholic Priest and social activist Bill Ayres. While the Commission’s practical and humanitarian recommendations were suffocated with the election of Ronald Reagan, and the rise of mean-spirited, anti-social justice ideologues in the United States in 1980, Harry Chapin’s work against hunger and food insecurity continues to this day. This week, the first documentary about Harry Chapin’s brief, but impactful, life is being released at the Hampton’s Film Festival on Long Island, NY, entitled: “Harry Chapin: When In Doubt, Do Something.” You can see the two-minute trailer to the Chapin documentary — produced by Rick Korn, S.A. Baron, and Harry’s son, Jason, with whom I was privileged to work — right here: https://share.getcloudapp.com/YEuoDnWL

The Chapin documentary will be nationally distributed, appropriately, on October 16, World Food Day. I have written a story entitled “Why Harry Chapin Still Matters,” which includes some never-before published quotes from Rock & Roll Hall of Fame Singer/Songwriter Billy Joel, whom I interviewed for the documentary. My story will be published in two installments to provide deeper background on the life and work of Harry Chapin, and the lives he touched. Here is Part I.)

When Harry Chapin was killed in a motor vehicle accident on the Long Island Expressway, July 16, 1981, the news was slow to spread.

It wasn’t like when Elvis died four years earlier, nor when John Lennon was assassinated only seven months before, on December 9, 1980, just two days after Harry Chapin’s 38th and final birthday. Then, the news of the deaths of those legends travelled at the speed of sound, like giant trees falling in the center of media forests. Everyone knew instantly. The whole world went dark for a time, as if someone pulled out the plug.

Despite their similarities of age, Elvis was 42, and Lennon, 40, Chapin’s musical career never came near those heights, with Cats in the Cradle being his only #1 top 40 hit, over a span of 10 years, 12 albums, and hundreds of poems and stories put to song.

Fellow Long Island musician, Billy Joel, who produced 33 top 40 hits, and performed before over 100 sell-out crowds at Madison Square Garden, recalled Harry’s many kindnesses toward him in the “dog eat dog business” of music.

“I was the opening act for him at the Kiel Opera House in St. Louis (now the Stifel Theatre) in 1973–74, “ Joel said. “ He was the headliner. He plugged me to his own audience. ‘How about that Billy Joel,’ he said. That was so gentlemanly of him, and, I never forgot that.”

Years later when the five-time Grammy Award winning Joel’s star rose faster and higher than Chapin’s, Harry opened for him, and Billy made a point of saying “we worked together, and we always worked really well as a show.’

Harry Chapin was not in the rarified league of John Lennon, Elvis or even Billy Joel when it came to fame. Few musicians were. But, regarding humanitarian work, few celebrities came close to Chapin, nor did many try to follow his lead, until after he was gone. Harry had created a Humanitarian Hall of Fame for performers who could translate their popularity into a permanent public good, and there were few stars applying to get in.

“In Harry’s case, he was literally the only artist in those days doing great humanitarian work,” said Ken Kragen, Chapin’s manager from 1976 until his death.

“ That’s what really made him unique. He was the only artist getting something done on the issues of hunger and poverty. He was very, very committed.”

Kragen, who would, in the mid 1980’s organize two enormous events aimed at alleviating hunger and poverty — We Are The World, and Hands Across America — which raised tens of millions of dollars and global awareness about the urgency of alleviating human suffering, credits Harry Chapin with being the source of his inspiration.

“ I had this overwhelming feeling that Harry Chapin had crawled up inside me, and he was directing everything I was doing, “ Kragen said. “Suddenly, I became the doer of his will. It was one of the things that pushed me to keep going.”

Billy Joel, standing next to Cyndi Lauper among the dozens of major recording artists like Bruce Springsteen, Michael Jackson, Lionel Richie, Kenny Rogers, Quincy Jones, & Stevie Wonder participating in the 1985 recording of We Are The World which Kragen arranged, underscored that assessment of what made Harry Chapin stand out from everyone else in the music business a full decade earlier.

“He was inspiring how motivated he was to try to help others. He was like a saint to the point of being a martyr, “ said Joel, noting that Chapin, seven years older was like an older brother to him, and taught him the importance of giving back. “If there was a religious medal for musicians who helped other people, Harry’s face would be on it,” Joel said.

Harry’s unmistakable smiling face and lanky body were badly burned in a fiery car crash, when his tiny Volkswagen Rabbit with a flawed seat-belt mechanism, was rear-ended by a big truck bearing down on him. Family members knew something was wrong when he was late for a significant meeting in NYC with his Business Manager, half-brother Jeb Hart, and top talent agent Shellie Schultz of ICM.

The meeting, blown-off the day before by Harry, had been rescheduled for July 16, by Jeb, who was now struggling to manage the day-to-day details of Harry’s musical career, out of sheer exasperation, to get Chapin to slow down a bit, concentrate more of his time and attention on his family and career, and devote less energy to the many social and political causes that were consuming him.

“Harry’s greatest quality, was his quality of inclusion, but he was just running, running on vapors, “ said Jeb, “and his career had become secondary. He was out of control. We were trying to get him to focus.”

In his decade of performing across the country, in venues that ranged from backyard barbeques to the Bottom Line Café, to big, sprawling concert halls, college campuses and the steps of the US Capitol Building, Harry Chapin did some 200 concerts per year, with nearly half of them being benefits for one non-profit or political cause or another, mostly fighting hunger and poverty. From March, 1980 through July, 1981, Chapin finished his work on the nation’s first-ever Presidential Hunger Commission which he and Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont (D-VT) were instrumental in getting President Jimmy Carter to create; participated in unique Radio “HungerThons” with WPLJ-DJ and former Catholic priest Bill Ayres raising millions of dollars for the World Hunger Year (WHYHunger) organization they jointly established five years earlier; founded Long Island Cares with his wife, partner, conscience and “one-person think tank” Sandy Chapin, who gave birth to the idea of a Presidential Hunger Commission; performed with Peter Yarrow and Mary Travers at the funeral of his assassinated political hero, Allard Lowenstein; relentlessly conducted fundraising benefits across the United States for progressive Democratic candidates courageously combatting the Reagan landslide of 1980; and gave the 2,000th concert of his career at the Bottom Line Café, in Manhattan over one weekend in January, 1981.

“Harry just couldn’t say ‘no’,” said Jeb Hart. “He had so many people he was talking to across a spectrum of causes and issues. He’d be making commitments to all of these entities in the midst of doing all these concerts.”

Chapin was involved with “good people,” as he liked to say, quoting Pete Seeger, long a role model for him in how to integrate his music into living a life that mattered on the most important social issues of the time.

In Pete Seeger: The Smithsonian Folkways Collection (Smithsonian Folkways Recordings, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC, 2019), author Jeff Place writes:

Pete saw his music as a means to move mountains — to end racism, poverty, social injustice, political ineptitude and war. There was a reason behind every song Pete wrote or sang. They carried messages and taught lessons. They fostered hope or strength or both. Even the simply fun folksongs had a purpose: they made us feel happy and connected, which could lead to a respect for your fellows, or love for your neighbor, saving the earth from environmental disaster, or…”

Tom Chapin recalled a concert he, Harry and Pete did at Huntington High School, in early January, 1976, to benefit Huntington’s PAF Playhouse, the performing arts group which was a particular passion of Sandy Chapin’s, who was dedicated to arts and arts education.

“One of the students in the audience asked Pete if he thought that all of the benefits for good causes had made any difference, “Tom said. “Seeger responded with this trademark honesty. “ I don’t know,” he said to the student. “But, I do know this. I’ve met good people; people with live hearts, live eyes and live minds.”

“Such a perfect Pete answer,” Tom Chapin said. “Deflecting any credit, not putting down a young reporter’s slightly pushy question, and pointing out what the concerts had done for him personally. Harry and I never forgot it.”

“What Do You Think Is Worse, Grampy? COVID or the Fires?”

Our 9-year old granddaughter and her father, our son, looking out at the future.

Our 9-year old granddaughter went out on the terrace of our 3-story Townhouse to drink a glass of water. She was by herself. She called down to me in the Garden, one floor below.

“Hi Grampy,” she said.

“Hi Sweetheart,” I answered, waving back to her. “You’re much taller than I am now.” She smiled. “Can I come up and sit with you?” I asked.

“Sure,” she said. So, I went upstairs, filled up a cup with water and we sat out on the terrace and chatted for a few minutes, uninterrupted. It was a rare moment in time, outdoors, enjoying the first day of non-smoky air in over a week. Then she asked me a question she had clearly been thinking deeply about.

“What do you think is worse, Grampy; COVID or the Fires?”

“Wow, “ I said. “That’s a very tough question. I guess I would say that the Fires are worse in the long-term. There are lots of scientists working on vaccines for COVID, so we can resume some normal things, like playing with friends, and I’m optimistic by next summer we’ll have a vaccine that we can take. So, I think, for now, we just have to keep wearing masks, but once we get that vaccine, it will reduce the threat of COVID.”

She and her sisters had been assiduous in wearing their masks since mid-March — the last time they visited us at our house — spending most of their time at home, doing distance learning, fortunate to have each other as playmates. They called the other kids in their neighborhood who didn’t wear masks, “The COVID Brigade.” Only within the past few weeks, had we expanded our “bubbles” to include each other. We could, at last, hug these loves of our lives, but agreed not to kiss, nor share food or drink.

“But, the fires, “ I said, conscious about how much she worries about natural disasters, “I think they’ll be with us every year, and we’ll just have to get better and better at dealing with them.”

“I think the Fires, too,” she said, “and the smoke that makes it so we can’t go outside to play. I feel bad for the people who have to evacuate their homes during COVID, too.” This from a nine-year old. Amazing.

“I do, too, honey, “ I said, “That’s why we’re so fortunate that if you had to evacuate you could come live with us. A lot of people are not so lucky.”

“I know,” she said. “I’m just worried that since it’s October, when the winds come, we’ll have more fires.”

I tried to relieve some of the worry of this budding young scientist, who voraciously reads everything she can get her hands on about planets and space, and devoured all of the Harry Potter books within the past two months, and has now worked her way back through Book III.

“Well, we might not, ” I said. “Since the fires started so much earlier this year, maybe we won’t get them again in October. Maybe the winds won’t be as bad; the weather changes every year, so maybe it won’t be as bad, and we’re supposed to get some rain next week.”

I was blown away by how deeply she thought about these things, coming into the 7th month of the Pandemic, and following the second major set of wildfires in the North Bay region of California since August. I wanted to reassure her that things would get better, but not lie to her. I hope I said the right things. I felt a bit like Roberto Benigni in “Life is Beautiful.”

I looked at this precious human, and it underscored my understanding of why it’s imperative we get things right — with COVID, with Climate Change, with everything that touches her life, and troubles her tender heart and mind. I hugged her, and wished I could protect her forever, and make all of her nightmares go away.

Gov. Cuomo: You fought COVID; Stop Trump from Killing Democracy.

NYS Governor Andrew M. Cuomo, New York Tough.

Dear Governor Cuomo:

Your powerful public service in never surrendering to the global catastrophe of COVID in New York State, and persistence in bringing NY’s infection rate down under one-percent, compels me to ask that you tackle another grave and immediate threat to all of us across this nation.

 In your capacity as Chair of the National Governor’s Association, I urge you to call upon the full power of the 50 States and 5 US Territories—who have the legal responsibility for conducting free, fair and unfettered elections– to ensure that this November 3rd’s Election will not be sabotaged by anyone, including the Russians, the President of the United States, or armed, private militias.

As the NGA has done with COVID in drafting and implementing your “Policy and Guidance Documents for COVID-19” I urgently request that you lead the Governors of this nation in establishing a protocol to guide each state in this year’s November elections, keeping them free from Foreign or Domestic interference or sabotage.  

Under your COVID guidelines, The National Governor’s Association says “several states have recently expanded vote-by-mail and absentee voting options due to the pandemic.”  It would be tragic to have the NGA’s pandemic protocols of “Vote-by-Mail,” be undermined by partisanship or a purposeful denigrating of the democratic process by either Vladimir Putin’s agents already sowing distrust in this election–as FBI Director Christopher Wray recently told Congress–or by the President of the United States repeating Russian talking points, and declaring at his Press Conference on September 23, 2020, that he wanted to “get rid of the ballots” to unconstitutionally retain power.

I understand that as Chairman of the NGA you must work collaboratively with Republicans and Democrats, and your work with Past Chair Larry Hogan of Maryland, a Republican, was a model of bipartisanship and the highest form of unbiased service to the American people, especially in dealing with the greatest public health crisis in a century.  

Similarly, we now face the greatest threat to the continuance of our Constitutional Republic in this country’s 244-year history.  Just as you and Governor Hogan performed in a brilliant, bi-partisan manner battling COVID, the future of our democracy depends upon your being  “New York tough” once again, demonstrating strong leadership on an imminent threat to our very existence—the protection of free and fair elections, conducted by State and local governments nationwide.

Since State Governments have full authority over their own National Guard, and 50+ Secretary of States (or Chief Election Officers) have responsibility to “oversee the conduct of elections, according to law,” I implore you through your leadership of the NGA, and your recognized excellence it taking command of the fight against COVID in New York State, to take every step necessary and guarantee that our upcoming elections will be fair and free from any outside, inappropriate or illegal interference.  

I consider it my civic duty as an American Citizen, concerned about the future of our Constitutional form of government and the sanctity of our elections as the repository of democracy, to urge you and your fellow Governors, in the strongest possible terms, to do your duty, and defend our democracy and our elections which are less than 6 weeks away.  The future of this democracy rests in your hands.

In light of the President’s direct threat to disregard election results if they don’t go his way, I recommend that as Chair of the National Governors Association, you immediately convene an emergency session of the NGA to strengthen election protocols—similar to the powerful protocols you put forward for fighting the spread of COVID—to protect our upcoming elections in every State and County, and defend our democracy from the deadly viruses of deceit, disinformation, potential violence, intimidation, and authoritarianism.

This urgent matter of our individual and States’ constitutional rights demands your immediate attention, and the clear, swift actions of State and Local governments across this nation to protect our fundamental right to vote.

Thank you for your life-saving leadership on COVID, and your consistent defense of our Constitutional and human rights.  

Yours in the continuing fight for a better, fairer democracy, and in the memory of a great New Yorker, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who devoted her life to justice and the law,

Steve Villano

Rosh Hashanah: Time to Sound the Shofar for Trump, And All of Us.

Sounding the Shofar.

When I converted to Judaism 40 years ago, the power and relevancy of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur prayers had an immediate and profound effect upon me.   They have an even more emotional hold over me today, with far, far greater urgency.

As I read and say them this year, I think of how they apply to Donald Trump, and all of us who have not done enough to protect and elevate humanity.    One of the magnificent attributes of the Judaism I love, is its encouragement of constant interpretation and meaning, and an unflinching focus on social and personal responsibility. 

Below, please find the Rosh Hashanah prayer said before the blowing of the Shofar.  The italics represent my own interpretations for this Rosh Hashanah, perhaps the most important one in my lifetime since 2001, the week after 9/11, when I could not get through the service without crying uncontrollably over the deaths of nearly 3,000 fellow humans during the World Trade Center attacks.  

This year, we recall the lives of 200,000 souls lost to COVID, including one in our own family, in our prayers.  Remember, the italics are my own thoughts: 

“On Rosh Hashanah it is written, 

On Yom Kippur it is sealed:

How many shall pass on, how many shall come to be?

Who shall live and who shall die? 

(Who could have prevented most of 200,000 COVID Deaths?)

Who shall see ripe age, and who shall not?

Who shall perish by fire and who by water?

(Who shall perish on the West Coast, besieged by fire & smoke?;

Who shall drown in the South & East by floods & rising seas?; 

Who dare remain silent while 3,000 Americans perished in Puerto Rico? 

Who shall deny dire warnings of death from climate change catastrophes?);

Who by sword, and who by beast?

(Who by White Supremacists chanting “Jews will not replace us?”;

Who by Nazi sympathizers turning Jim Crow laws into Nuremberg Laws?

Who by tearing children from their mother’s breasts,

And locking them away in cages of chain-links?

Who by hunger and who by thirst?

Who has forced families onto food-lines to wait 4 hours for food?

Who has increased the number of food insecure children, 

While offering the wealthy more and more bread and gold?

Who by earthquake and who by plague? 

Who by privately admitting the Plague was deadly,

While lying, and publicly calling the Plague a hoax?

Who by modeling dangerous behavior resulting in more COVID deaths?

Who by strangling and who by stoning?  

Who by denial of George Floyd’s murder by suffocation?

Who by Breonna Taylor’s being stoned to death by gunfire,

Or Jacob Blake, 7 bullets in his back, paralyzed, while his 3 children watched?

Who shall be secure and who shall be driven?

Who shall be tranquil and who shall be troubled?

Who shall be poor and who shall be rich?

Who shall be humbled, and who exalted?

But repentance, prayer and charity,

Temper judgement’s severe decree—

And refusal to repent, pray, or love,

Condemn one to eternal, internal, isolation & immolation.

You shall cause the Shofar to be sounded, and proclaim

Liberty throughout the earth to all its inhabitants…

Justice, justice shall you follow, that you may live.

Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness as a mighty stream.

And, the great Shofar was sounded again, for all to listen to the “fierce urgency of now,” and awaken from our sleep.

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