A Breakthrough View of Mortality.

Photo by Steve Villano, off the Sonoma Coast.

I knew all the statistics about COVID, kind of like how I memorized every baseball batting and pitching record when I was a kid.

I knew that we were doing real well in Northern California, and that the rate of new infections in NYC was low, compared to communities throughout the South.  I knew that the odds of contracting that devious Delta Variant were greatly reduced since Carol and I were double-vaxxed, and would be triple masked. 

To give us an extra level of protection for our upcoming cross-country flight in the weeks before booster shots were available, and proof of vaccination was required everywhere in NYC, we got our seasonal SuperFlu vaccine, a little earlier than usual.  We were pumped, and, we thought, as safe as we could possibly be.   Now, even the most careless unvaccinated Trumpholes would not be a threat to us.  

I knew that only .33 of one-percent—less than ½ of one percent—of vaccinated New Yorkers had contracted the new strain of COVID.   Yes, we’d be visiting the crowded 9/11 Memorial in lower Manhattan, and we’d be riding on NYC’s subways, but as long as we kept our triple layers of mask covering our noses and mouths, sanitized ourselves regularly, and didn’t get too close to other people, we could reduce the risk of being mugged by a COVID-carrying criminal.

What I underestimated was how extreme mental and emotional stress and a weakened immune system, would make my otherwise well-protected body a ripe target for an errant viral variant, propelled at many times the intensity of the original virus.  Delta’s heightened danger, never really dawned on us. 

The tension of traveling in an airport for the first time in 2 years, and crowding into  an airplane with strangers—all of whom were masked—was palpable.  My body was on high alert, looking for mask mockers, who flipped their noses over the tops of their masks as if they were middle-fingers, or wore ratty, loose material over their smug faces—breeding grounds for disease, as well as disdain. 

I consciously chose to ignore these slovenly public health sluts, kept to myself, and kept my masks on during the entire 5-hour flight, refusing to eat or drink on board the plane, and visiting the bathroom only once, out of dire necessity.   Tense, very tense.  This was not my idea of having fun through travel.

In New York, we visited a few ailing friends, contemporaries of ours, and the jolt of our own mortality lingered just outside the door, just beyond the safety of our masks.  Despite our fame, we weren’t going to live forever.

My emotional reserves were already running on fumes, when we worked our way through the 9/11 Memorial museum, at the site of Tower # 2—the South Tower, as it was now called—where six years of my life and my soul were imbedded in the concrete.   I was struggling to stay afloat in this sea of sorrow—in the shadow of the  giant Slurry Wall– when I spotted the tomb that held the still unidentified remains of World Trade Center workers.  The massive mausoleum was adorned with squares of shades of blue, capturing how many memories of the color of the sky were obliterated on that crystalline morning in September.  Memory, and mortality, had pierced my masks, and against that, I had no defense.

Somewhere over the course of the next few days, our paths crossed with one or two unmasked, unvaxxed fellow tourists, or First Responders, many of whom zeroed in on Ground Zero to pay respects to fallen colleagues.  On the evening of 9/11, we followed the two columns of light down to what we thought was their source—the Eternal Fountains of Remembrance, where the footprints of each Tower once stood. It was bad enough that the area around the fountains was mobbed, mostly with a younger, unmasked, partying crowd, but I could not believe the shafts of light were no longer there.

With my mask pulled tight around my face, to hide my hurt, I walked up to a small huddle of Police Officers, none of whom were wearing masks.

“Where are the light columns coming from, Officers?” I asked.  “I thought they were right here, shining up from the fountains, on into infinity?”

A young cop, probably in grade school when the Towers fell, could see I was visibly upset.

“They had to move them a few years ago, when it got too crowded down here,” he said.  “They moved them to a parking lot a few blocks down.  Sorry sir.”

I was crushed, dropping my guard, my shell of self-defense dissolved, and allowing the Delta devil to dance right in.    Depression and lethargy had already set in, days before a COVID test at a hospital confirmed the diagnosis.

It’s taken me about two weeks to come through quarantine; my cough is subsiding, and I haven’t had a temperature or headaches for a few days running.  I’ve been sleeping long nights, and, little-by-little, my strength is returning:  a few hours of gardening here, a few minutes of walking there.  I soak up the sun for part of the day, mainlining Vitamin D, remembering the hours I would spend sitting in the California sunshine, chatting with my mother, in the years before she died.   It felt the same now, as it did then.  Timeless. Gentle. Healing.

Unlike hundreds of thousand of other COVID sufferers, we were fortunate to have been fully-vaccinated, and to be healthy enough to manage our own illness, and stay out of the hospital.   We isolated ourselves from our son and granddaughters, and have slowly, steadily, regained our strength.    

But, what lingers deep within me, sometimes deeper than I can fathom, is a feeling that I am walking on egg shells, waiting for the next breakthrough vision of my own mortality, another reminder of the fragility of life.

A Man on the Cusp of His Life.

A Man on the Cusp of his Life, 

One week from turning 25,

Father of a newborn child,

Is no longer alive.

 

No more chimes gently blowing in the breeze,

Nor hummingbirds darting through the trees.

A Man on the Cusp of his Life, 

Promising, next time…

To get it right.

No more innocent smiles cast his way,

No more breath for another day.

A Man on the Cusp of his Life,

Unaware of his fate,

Until, it was too late.

No more crazy vaccine theories,

Of tracking chips, or other murderous

Lies dripping from the lips of ghouls.

A Man on the Cusp of his Life,

One week from turning 25

Is no longer alive.

The Universe yawns.

No one pays, 

Attention, nor the price.

Except, for The Man on the Cusp of his Life,

One week from turning 25,

His orphaned child, still alive.

9/11, Derek Jeter, & the Memory of Time.

The 9/11 Memorial (Photo by Steve Villano)

It’s one of life’s oddly poetic moments to be back to NYC for the 20th Anniversary commemoration of 9/11, in the very same week Derek Jeter got inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame, and the very same weekend the Yankees were playing the Mets in a subway series.   It was Jeter, after all, and the Yankees, who picked up many of us New Yorkers,  after we were numbed by the death and destruction of 9/11. 

The Yankees were having a banner year in 2001, headed for another World Series after beating the Mets the Year before, and the promise of a 4th Consecutive World Championship was on our minds.  Twenty years ago,  on the night before 9/11,  I was at Yankee Stadium with my college friend Phil Cantor, and my son, Matt , and a few of his friends. We were there to see Roger Clemens pitch against his former team, the Boston Red Sox, and–we hoped–win his 20th game of the season.  Our spirits were soaring; everything was within our reach.

It poured for hours that night, and before we headed into the Stadium, Phil and I stayed dry by having pastrami and corned beef sandwiches in the Bronx’ famous Court Delicatessen, a landmark for Yankee Fans. The “Court” as we called it–just down the block from the Bronx Courthouse, was not its usual jam-packed self that night, the driving rain keeping most sane folks away. We lingered in a booth for over an hour, talking about little things and big things, and simply enjoying being with a friend I’d known from when we were both 19 years old.

The rain was still coming down in sheets when we dodged under covered doorways and under the El Train to get to the old Yankee Stadium.  We found my son and a group of his friends, sitting in a rain-sheltered section of reserved seats. Several generations of friends, each traveling different paths, were brought together by the prospect of seeing Clemens pitch, watching Jeter hit, and ragging against Boston—a national pastime for New Yorkers.

We talked and ate and drank for another hour or so, watching the rain form little rivers in the tarp on the field, laughing, and basking in the joy of each others’ company. It was a timeless moment, endless youth relived and shared with my son, and I wanted it to last forever. The game was cancelled, but we didn’t care; we celebrated life with each other for hours.  World without end, Amen.


The rain finally stopped that night, long after we left the Stadium, and the following morning, September 11, the sun was sparkling on a crisp and perfect September morning in New York.  Then time stopped, and the world, we once knew, ended.

Twenty years later, I was reminded how blue the sky was over New York City, when we awakened early on the morning of September 11, 2001.  Only this time, it wasn’t a violent storm that cleared the air, and brought such sparkling clarity. 

This time, it was one single wall at the 9/11 Memorial, on the site of where, 57 floors higher, I lived much of my life, working in Tower 2, now referred to as the South Tower.  The underground wall encased a massive tomb, holding the remnants of hundreds of souls who perished in the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center.

On the exterior of the wall was a quotation from Virgil, etched in fragments of steel from the mighty towers that, impossibly, fell that day:  “No Day Shall Erase You From the Memory of Time.”

The quote, coupled with the thought of human remains behind it, was staggering, transporting me back to Jerusalem, to the moment I first witnessed the Yad Vashem Memorial.   It was the wall, the tomb, the letters made of  crumpled World Trade Center steel, but most of all, it was the patches of blue squares–of varying shades of blue, really–which made me gasp.  

Each square patch of blue—one for every human being taken from us on 9/11—was a different tone, a different color, a different thought, representing all the individual, and collective memories we shared on the final morning of our youth, when Derek Jeter still represented our dreams of what was possible. 

###

Growing The Gratitude Tree.

The Gratitude Tree.

Not too long ago, I gave my oldest granddaughter a “Gratitude Tree.”

It resembled a punch-out, paper doll tree and came with many little, paper green leaves, each no bigger than a thumb-print, on which notes of gratitude could be written, to remind us of what we can be thankful for each day.

I promised my granddaughter that she would earn a dollar for each “gratitude” leaf she completed. She asked if she could enlist the help of her younger sister, age 10, and if they could split the proceeds. I loved the idea of their collaboration and said, “Of course!”

I simply wanted them to stop and take a moment — a deep breath, really — to think about all they have to appreciate, even during the most daunting of times.

The Gratitude Tree sat quietly in its dark, slender box for a few months, while the two girls finished school and dealt with a some significant changes going on in their lives. I knew that asking a 12 and 10-year old to pause for a few minutes, and step off of the quickly spinning merry-go-round of everyday life was asking a lot, so I didn’t put any deadline on the activity. It was a process I wanted to last a lifetime.

“When you get to it, you get to it,” I said. Gratitude shouldn’t be forced, even though I believe it should be positively reinforced.

Finally, in the middle of the summer of 2021, they set up “The Tree” on my oldest granddaughter’s dresser. A few of the delicate, laser-cut paper branches broke off, but that didn’t deter them.

“A few of the branches broke, Grampy,” my oldest granddaughter told me when I noticed The Gratitude Tree atop her dresser. “But we did the leaves, anyway.”

I was delighted by their determination to carry out the task, and devote, even a nano-second of their precious, fleeting time to think about these things. The results were both revealing and remarkable.

They wrote on each leaf some of the obvious sources of things they were thankful for: “Sisters, (including their almost 6-year old youngest)” “Dad”, “Mom,” “Cats,” “Friends”, “Family,” “Our Planet,” “Food”, and their “Guinea Pigs,” but other entries blew me away.

“Joe Biden,” said one; “AOC,” another, harking back to their pre-COVID summer visit to AOC’s Washington, DC. Congressional Office. These girls are very aware of the world around them, and they LOVE having female she-roes.

“Pride,” one wrote; “Loyalty,” “Kindness,” “Honesty” and “Love.” “Maia,” wrote another, referring to an Oakland-raised pop star named MXMtoon, and “Liv” — a reference to the star of “High School Musical,” Olivia Rodrigo. One proudly wrote “Entrapta,” the non-binary cartoon character who also happens to be Autistic.

“Everyone is Equal” one leaf read; “Doctors,” “The Moon & the Stars,” “Water,” “Trees,” “Birds,” and “Hamilton,” read several others. Lin Manual-Miranda would be grateful to make it in such sublime company.

Rather than curse the darkness of a year of distance learning, my granddaughters gravitated to the light, expressing gratitude for, “Zoom,” “Prodigy,” “Tech,” and “I-Message.” Extraordinary. No time for negativity.

“Books,” and “School,” also made their Tree of Gratitude, as did, “Teachers,” “Dad’s Friends,” and “Bees” — even though they panic when yellow-jackets buzz too close for comfort. They get the bigger picture.

I rewarded them for their beautiful green leaves of Gratitude, but my reward, of being privy to their thoughts, and dreams and the inner workings of their hearts, and being part of their lives was much, much greater. For that, I’m grateful for being alive to watch them grow.

If Only We Hadn’t Had A War.

Photo by Steve Villano, taken in Assisi, Italy at a Peace & Reconciliation Conference.

When I am at a loss for words, or reasons why things did or did not happen, I seek out solace or guidance, or both, from authors whose work has slapped me across the face, or broken my heart. One such writer is Viet Thanh Nguyen, Pulitzer Prize winning author of The Sympathizer.

During the final days of the United States 20-year War in Afghanistan, I turned to Nguyen’s book “The Refugees,” to deepen my understanding and feeling of what thousands of Afghani refugees were experiencing, desperate to escape their country now back under Taliban rule, 20 years after the True Faithful, blinded by Sharia Law, had been driven out of power, not for how they brutalized women and tortured their fellow countrymen, but for harboring terrorists who slaughtered civilians in the West.

I turned to “The Refugees,” Nguyen’s collection of vignettes of Vietnamese refugees, who fled their country after the North Vietnamese drove out American forces following an excruciating 11-year War. An eerie quote from a women, I took to be Nguyen’s mother, jumped out at me:

“If we hadn’t had a war, we’d be like the Koreans now. Saigon would be Seoul, your father alive, you married with children, me a retired housewife, not a manicurist.”

The feeling of intimate wistfulness, the power of hope, was familiar to me. Yes, it echoed my own mother’s sentiments that those of us who grew up poor in America “lived in hopes and died in despair, “ but there was something else about it that I knew.

It sent me scurrying for my copy of Nguyen’s The Sympathizer, and to a remarkable passage toward the end of his book, which, each time I read it, takes my breath away. The long paragraph runs across pages 353 and 354 of the paperback version of the book, over 40 lines, is punctuated by semi-colons, and populated heavily by a set of “ifs.” The super sentence suggests how different the world, and his character’s life, would have been, “If” only certain events had or had not happened:

“…if history’s ship had taken a different tack, if I had become an accountant…if we forgot our resentment, if we forget revenge; if we acknowledged that we are all puppets in someone else’s play, if we had not fought a war against each other; if some of us had not called ourselves nationalists or communists or capitalists or realists…”

I first read Nguyen’s haunting language during the early summer of the American Presidential campaign of 2016, and repeated the “if” sequence dozens of times during the campaign’s closing days, when I traveled around North Carolina observing Barack & Michelle Obama, and Elizabeth Warren try mightily to win that important swing state for Hillary Clinton.

I interviewed dozens of voters, entered historic African-American churches constructed since before slavery was dismantled, and listened to the rhythm of the voices of the citizens with whom I spoke, quietly warning me of the dark times to come by the cadence of their language. I composed what they said into a song reminiscent of Nguyen’s work:

“If history had taken a quicker turn toward the arc of justice, if everyone’s skin color were the same; if furniture were still being made in North Carolina’s factories, and clothing in it’s mills; if I had become an attorney or a diplomat and moved away; if my Jesus could sit down and have a beer with yours, and pick ribs clean together; if I was not frightened by the darkness of your skin and the bright, bold hope in your eyes, and if you did not resent my very existence on the same street where you lived as a sign of your own failure…”

Now, that relentless imprinting of Nguyen’s “IF” paragraph from The Sympathizer seized me again, drumming home that a few changes here or there, over the course of 20 years, might have altered, for the better, tens of thousands of Afghani and American lives. And so, I attempted to change some lives, and history, with some slight revisions of my own, following the fall of Kabul to the Taliban, and the deaths of many more Afghani civilians, and 13 more American soldiers young enough to be my grandchildren:

“They were good students, just like me. They learned their lessons well, and so have I…if I had fallen in love with the right woman, if I had been a more virtuous lover, if my mother had been less of a mother, if my father had gone to save souls in Iraq, instead of here…if we forgot resentment, if we forgot revenge, if we acknowledged that we are all puppets in someone else’s play…if the Americans hadn’t come to save us from ourselves, if we had not bought what they sold, if the Soviets had never called us comrades…if the Taliban had not been so self-righteous and unbending and so sexually repressed, like the religious fundamentalists of America, and if native Aghanis had simply said, Hell No, on first seeing the white man, if our tribes and mullahs had not clashed among themselves, if the Koran had never been written, if history had never happened, neither as farce nor as tragedy, if I had never been born, and if I saw no more of these visions, please, could you please just let me sleep?

Peace, perhaps, if only things were different.

We Should Have Listened to Tony Kushner About Kabul.

I woke up this morning in August, 2021, in Kabul — or, more precisely inside the powerful, prescient play, “Homebody, Kabul” at the New York Theatre Workshop, 20 years ago — surrounded by Tony Kushner and Roma Torre and Carol Villano, and I knew I had been here before.

Barely a few months after the World Trade Center Towers, where I spent 6 years of my life, were destroyed, and nearly 3,000 humans slaughtered in the attack, we ventured back to Broadway, or, Off-Broadway to be exact.

It was only because a new play from the brilliant Tony Kushner was opening — his first play since “Angels in America”. Kushner wrote and rewrote “Homebody, Kabul,” for several years before 9/11, eerily warning us about the Taliban in Afghanistan in 1998 and 1999, and their appetite for brutality, inhumanity and Jihadism.

I went to see it at the recommendation of Roma Torre, then NY 1’s Theatre Critic, with whom I became friends a decade earlier, when both of us worked at News 12 Long Island. We sat in the old East 4th Street theatre for the next 4 hours, mesmerized by an opening 45 minute monologue by the actress Linda Emond, playing a lonely English woman who dreamed of the romance of old Kabul for decades.

When she lived out her dream and went to Kabul in Act 2, and her family followed to search for her, the Taliban were in-control, arresting women because of their gender, selling them off into sexual slavery, and beheading anyone who disagreed with them.

Kushner’s words, wisdom and uncompromising loyalty to telling the truth hit me like an anvil — just as “Angels” did earlier, and now, 20 years later, his words jolted me out of my sleep, when I learned that the Taliban, more violent, unforgiving and determined than ever, had, once-again, entered the gates of Kabul after thousands of deaths — American and otherwise — and billions of dollars spent battling them, across four US Administrations: two Republican, and two Democratic.

We were warned again and again about these fundamentalist terrorists, and for a whole host of reasons — some humanitarian (like preventing the repression and annihilation of women), some geopolitical (like defeating foreign terrorism) some military, and some based on pure arrogance and pride — we persisted in pursuing a doomed policy.

Now, theTaliban have come home…and so have we, and it’s unlikely that lonely English ladies will long for the long-ago romance of Kabul ever again.

If only we paid closer attention to what Tony Kushner labored mightily to tell us about Kabul.