Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Rookie, beloved cat

Twelve years ago a little cat in a tuxedo walked up to me at the corner of Duncan and West Side, and asked “Will you be my person”? I give thanks for the grace which led me to say yes, and I picked him up and tucked him inside my vest.

He has been ill for the past couple of weeks. When tuna and ham and raw egg and even his beloved cat treats become pale delights, it is time to say goodbye, which we have been doing for the past few days. Today we made the sad and merciful trip so that his end was as peaceful as most of his life.

Rookie loved to receive and give affection. He was usually timid, but not when he got outside on his monthly journeys to the Poconos, where he would quietly munch grass until the spirit took hold of him and he would dash across the yard to rocket ten feet up a tree, take a look around to make sure he was being seen, and then scamper down, to saunter back to the house with studied nonchalance.

He wore a perfect tuxedo, all mahogany black except for one white patch which extends all the way from his tuxedo shirt along his belly, with a thin white seam down the back of each leg to his white-shod paws.

Some pet tributes are a bit sheepish for caring so much for "just" an animal. No one needs to apologize for love and affection, and relationships with animals are just as real and as true as those with creatures of our own species. Pets are not people, but they are beloved, and a delight. Good night, sweet Rookie. Sweet cat dreams of fields and woods and nooks and crannies and little mousies and catnip forests and warm cozy sofas, with a loved one always nearby.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Remembering them, one at a time

One of the things that most impressed me in the WTC recovery work was the ordinary goodness of so many lives. The New York Times' Portraits of Grief are brief clips of many of the people who died that day. Each 9/11 it is good to review a few of these neighbors.

Eli Chalouh

Fluent in Arabic, Hebrew and English, Eli Chalouh, 23, moved easily among the diverse communities to which his languages gave him access. He spoke Arabic at home, of course: he moved here with his family from Damascus, Syria, when he was 14.

At his new job at the New York State Department of Taxation and Finance, in the World Trade Center, he spoke Arabic with his Egyptian colleagues, who got a kick out of him. Mr. Chalouh was not Muslim; he was a Syrian Jew, who learned Hebrew at the yeshiva he attended in Brooklyn.

America was the country he wanted to wrap his future around. He was always in a rush, determined to cram every moment with English studies and other courses: he was so disciplined that he allotted himself only 15 minutes of television at night.

His efforts were beginning to pay off. He had just graduated with near-perfect grades from Long Island University, a member of the honor society and voted by the faculty the most outstanding accounting student of 2001.

Industrious, yes, but enormously sunny and engaging, as well. "Whatever you asked him he would do, and whatever you wouldn't ask, he would volunteer to do," said a supervisor at work, Eddie Jaeger. "He was an unbelievably nice kid."

Sara Elizabeth Low

For Sara Elizabeth Low, a career as a flight attendant was a birthright. Family vacations meant piling in the back of her father's small plane and heading from Batesville, Ark., to the Gulf Coast or Rocky Mountains. "Sara didn't think there was too much difference between being in the plane and being in a car," said her mother, Bobbie Low.

Poised, collected, yet prone to sudden streaks of silliness — a personality to calm even the most enraged traveler. And her job sated her wanderlust, her need for cosmopolitan glamor.

"She would call us from the different destinations and give us a hard time," said her older sister, Alyson, a teacher in Fayetteville, Ark. "In the summer she'd phone from San Francisco or Vancouver because she loved that she had to wear a sweater, rubbing it in about how hot and humid it is in Arkansas."

Yet one aspect of the itinerant life wore on Sara: in her first two years as a flight attendant she had about two dozen roommates. So at age 28 she had finally found a place of her own in the Beacon Hill area of Boston, the city from which she boarded Flight 11. "It had a fireplace and wooden floors," Alyson said. "Our mother went to Boston in the summer to help her clean it up, and it was going to be a real home.

Santos Valentin Jr.

There is a saying among police officers: "When people are in trouble, they call the cops. When cops are in trouble, they call Emergency Service." Santos Valentin Jr., a member of the New York Police Department's Emergency Service Squad 7, answered the call on Sept. 11.

Officer Valentin was a sharpshooter trained in counterterrorism tactics, said his sister, Sgt. Denise Valentin, and his family thought that if anyone could come out alive in this attack, it would be him.

What have lived on are the memories - of the jokes he played on his colleagues, of how he loved his dog, Luger (so much that he would leave the Animal Planet channel on for him when he was not home), of his love for family and friends, and of his bravery. Officer Valentin was not afraid of death, but he did hate funerals. So, a few days ago, his family gave him a send-off at the rubble of the World Trade Center, where he was last seen. He loved his Budweiser, so they poured him a can and said their goodbyes.

Doris Eng

Long after her friends had left the nest and set up homes of their own, Doris Eng was still sharing an apartment in Flushing, Queens, with her mother, Sui-Kam Eng. Doris, club manager for Windows on the World on the 107th floor of 1 World Trade Center, was single-minded in her devotion to her mother, a garment worker whose husband died last year. "Everything she did was for my mom," her younger brother, Jerry, 27, said in a telephone interview as his mother sobbed in the background. "She cared about other people more than herself.""

Doris was also devoted to her work. A graduate of New York University, she had worked in some of the city's finest establishments — Le Cirque, the Mayfair Hotel and the Warwick Hotel — but her job at Windows was, he said, a dream come true. She worked from 6 a.m. until 5 p.m., and sometimes came in on the weekends."

A network administrator for the City Council, Jerry was on his way to work last Tuesday when he saw the first plane hit. He tried to make his way into the building to rescue his sister but was rebuffed by the police. "That's the hardest part," he said. "I witnessed everything happen."

Kenny Caldwell

You know how most people have to bend down to scratch their knee? Kenny Caldwell did not, because he had hands the size of baseball mitts and arms that went on forever. "He was a little slim Jimmy," said his mother, Elsie Caldwell, from his hometown, Philadelphia, "with big hands and a big, big heart. I called him my little chocolate drop."

Mr. Caldwell, 30, liked being a technology salesman for Alliance Consulting Group on the 102nd floor of 1 World Trade Center. But what he loved was figuring out ways to get people together. "I used to call him the C.E.O., chief entertainment officer," said his older brother, Leon Caldwell. He even invented an annual event: the International Kicknic Contest, held every August in Prospect Park in Brooklyn, for an ever-expanding circle of friends and family to play kickball and catch up.

"My neighbors used to tease me about him while he was growing up," Mrs. Caldwell said. "They'd say other kids collect stray cats and dogs, but your Kenny collects stray people."

Nancy Farley

Having three cats of her own did not stop Nancy Farley from feeding neighborhood strays and taking them to the veterinarian when needed. "If there was a snowstorm and she saw a cat, she would bring it in," recalled Linda Selnow, Ms. Farley's older sister. "She had the most caring heart."

Ms. Farley, 45, negotiated insurance claims at Reinsurance Solutions Inc., on the 94th floor of 1 World Trade Center. The youngest of three children, she lived with her husband, Robert, in a condominium in Jersey City; her brother lived upstairs. Her father died when she was in high school, and her mother died a decade ago. "Just the three of us were left, and we were very close," Ms. Selnow said.

Nancy and Robert married in Las Vegas a few years ago. Her sister and brother were there, front and center. "It was one of the greatest times the three of us had together," Ms. Selnow said. Except when she was cheering on her beloved Yankees, Ms. Farley was a quiet person. "We believe that she is in a better place," Ms. Selnow said. "It's just the pain of not knowing what happened or where she was."

David Suarez

David Suarez cared. He cared about people who did not have his opportunities, people who did not have his education, people who had to struggle. "He reached out to people in a very warm and genuine way," said Ted Suarez, his father. "Everyone remembered his smile. From a little boy, he had a smile that was very endearing."

Mr. Suarez, 24, was a systems consultant who worked for Deloitte Consulting. He reported each day to the office of his client, Marsh & McLennan, in the World Trade Center. He was in the process of sending out applications to colleges, because next fall he wanted to embark on an M.B.A. before returning to Deloitte. His hope was to go to Harvard.

But he always made time for the needy. Social concern was a family tradition. He volunteered for the nonprofit group New York Cares. He worked in soup kitchens and tutored high school students for their college entrance exams.

He always gave the disadvantaged the benefit of the doubt. Friends told a story about how they found him once talking to some beggars outside a bar. Mr. Suarez asked one of the beggars, who was in a wheelchair, "What would it take to make you happy?"

The man said, "Give me $20." Mr. Suarez gave him $20. The beggar got up, folded up his wheelchair and walked off.

Mr. Suarez was not angry. The episode did not make him jaded. He shrugged it off. By his thinking, he would rather lose $20 here and there to an impostor than risk spurning someone who really needed his help. He kept on giving.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014


It was thirteen years ago. Devastation came to my neighborhood.

World Trade Center, 9/11/11, photo by James Nachtwey

I remember my first trip by the site the following week. The smell that hung in the air. The shocked, hard faces of the soldiers who stood guard along Broadway. The glimpses of the wreckage one block over. And my fellow citizens filing by, a commuting crowd unlike any other I'd seen.

The attacks of that day soon led to more attacks. Thirteen years later, we are in a seemingly perpetual war. The wounds of 9/11 were used to justify more attacks, including the evil disaster that was the invasion of Iraq. Now a new American President is calling for a re-engagement in Iraq and escalation of warfare in the region.

Colin Powell had the right idea - "you break it, you own it" - but America has never owned up to our responsibility for breaking Iraq, for breaking the troubled political balance of the Middle East, or for unleashing the dogs of war which have now killed hundreds of thousands.

Over the last 13 years, the United States of America has been waging war in Afghanistan and Iraq and Yemen and Pakistan and Libya and Syria. If we had used a tenth of that war spending on non-violent interventions, the world would be a better place. And so would America.

Someday, we may have a leader or be a people who do not see air strikes and arms as the only option. Do not be deceived; God is not mocked, for you reap whatever you sow.*

We are reaping the bitter harvest of the killing we have sown around the world for the past 13 years. We cannot have a better harvest until we sow a better kind of seed.

God always remembers the victims. On this solemn day of remembrance, let us also remember our own folly.

* The Apostle Paul's Letter to the Galatians, 6:7.

Saturday, July 5, 2014

Independence Day 2014

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There's no doubt that one of the freedom's envisioned back in 1776 was the freedom to engage in commercial activity. But in commemorating July 4th as a pivotal date in the nation, let us remember those words, for the Declaration's truths were not self-evident then, nor are they now.

1. "The unanimous Declaration of the thirteen united States of America." It is remarkable today to think of any congress composed of our states as united and unanimous, especially on a matter of controversy. Certainly the national opinion was far from unanimous. Challenging one of earth's most powerful empires took courage, conviction, and those who put their names on the line were taking a great risk. Any union has tensions and potential divisions. The Continental Congress worked hard to get a united agreement, and the subsequent war was as much a story of maintaining the states' alliance as it was about the military action. The Declaration could not have worked unless the states were and stayed united - in union there is strength.

2. "When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another..." Think of the Declaration as the initial filing in a divorce proceeding. Skip over for a moment those great "self-evident" truths and you will find a detailed case against King George ("a history of repeated injuries"), the claims of how the colonies have been faithful and tried to make the relationship work ("In every stage of these Oppressions We have Petitioned for Redress in the most humble terms"), and the conclusion that these differences have become irreconcilable.

3. They knew the Declaration meant war. They accuse the King of waging war against the states, and declare instead that the States have "full Power to levy War." War, warfare, and the military are mentioned at least 13 times in this short document.

4. An imperfect union.
We now see the gap between "all men are created equal" and the reality of inequality built into the young nation. The pictures of the Continental Congress show white men only, with some women in the gallery. But the vision they put forth has had legs: equality before the law, a government constituted by and in service of its people. The Declaration of Independence started to enunciate the conditions that would allow the new nation to grow in wisdom. Those who came after could use these words in pursuit of greater equality, liberty, and happiness than could be reached in 1776. The Declaration challenges its heirs to a critical patriotism. As another patriot would say a century later: "My country, right or wrong; if right, to be kept right; and if wrong, to be set right" (Carl Schurz, Senator from Wisconsin and a German immigrant, 1872).

May the blessings of liberty be known in every age and in every land, and may we always keep our eyes on that prize.