Dr. Russell J. Jandoli

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Dr Russell J. Jandoli–he would have been 100 August 16th

The first class I ever took in college was Media Law and the professor was my advisor, Dr. Russell Jandoli. He was one of the reasons I went to St. Bonaventure. This seasoned journalist had worked with everyone in the business and did his time with Stars and Stripes. He introduced me to the work of Ernie Pyle, and spent several hours with me in the basement of the library talking to Fr. Ireneaus Hirscher, who had known Thomas Merton, and we talked a long time, the three of us. On the way back to his office his simple comments about what to listen to and what I clearly wasn’t paying attention to helped me through all the writing courses at the college.

Dr. Jandoli would have been 100 years old Thursday. He seemed older than his years even four decades ago, yet had a laid back way about him that indicated he could handle, and probably had already handled, anything and anyone. He was a gentle man; a pure soul who was straight out of central casting for old time journalists. The first class on my first day in college, Dr. Jandoli walked in, called roll, and said quietly, “There’s no such thing as objectivity. It doesn’t exist,” and walked out. We sat quietly for a few moments until one student walked to the window and looked out and saw the professor walking away. “He’s gone!” he said, and we all walked back to our dorm rooms.

He caught my attention.

The following class he told us he didn’t want that information—essential for journalists—to get lost among all the other information we had no intention of remembering or caring about.

A few years later he was very sick in the hospital. When I visited, he told me that teachers talk too much. “We have two hour classes for one hour of information,” he said. “No wonder everyone stops listening.” He believed writing did the same thing. “Too many words. Your essays need to thin out as you rewrite. Leave some words behind as you go.” It was like sitting on a hillside with some prophet—his legs crossed, a long beard, the strength of ages in his straight and sturdy back. Instead, Dr Jandoli’s fragile frame lay eroded and weak in a hospital bed. We talked about things I was writing and then we sat quietly for a few moments before his wife would come and chase me out. Then he laughed and said, “Mr. Kunzinger—leave death for the poets.” His skin was transparent, and his once keen eyes that stared at ages of students from behind thick black glasses sunk subjectively into darkness.

He recovered from that stay, of course, returning stronger and then retiring. Just a dozen or so years later he wrote me a beautiful letter when a colleague of his and a friend and mentor of mine, Professor Pete Barrecchia, died. It was a beautiful letter, precise and deep. Those two were the journalists who set the pace, established the essential integrity necessary for the Fourth Estate to exist at all. And as a teacher he was the type who quietly demanded attention when he talked. He was the professor who we didn’t take advantage of simply because we couldn’t live with disappointing him.

Every time I write an editorial for the paper or a piece for a journal or magazine, I think of him, can see his deep, humble, and cunning smile. I think I moved away from journalism and toward personal narrative because I understood too well how difficult it can be to remain objective. It was rare then, and today nearly non-existent.

Happy Birthday Russ. Your influence is still present, and more necessary now than ever before.

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Racism at the Hartfield, VA YMCA

Yesterday I published a piece on this blog about how disappointing humanity is in the grand scheme of history and potential. It was a simple piece, and it barely scratches the surface of my thoughts in the matter–I need more philosophy first. But early this morning I experienced a moment of how pathetic humans can be. 

This is the first of what might be several writings about the subject in other more notable publications. But for today, thanks for reading this: 

I don’t even know how to write about this. It is one thing to address the horrific conditions of the planet and of humanity in large terms—noting the genocide and hatred which has permeated since the beginning of it all—and question how we can continue to believe we are anything worthy of redemption. Individually perhaps, but as a whole? There is no proof.

It is something else altogether to experience this hatred, or better explained, overhear the small-brained among us converse.

This morning at the Y I rode my favorite bike which has no headphone jack. I don’t mind it so much since at this hour the news shows remind me of things I go to the Y to forget for a while, but today I was subject to a conversation of two men on other bikes. Since this just happened an hour ago, this dialogue is close to exact:

“Did the Skins win this week?”

“I don’t know.”

“I was wondering if last night everyone stood for the flag.”

“I hope so.”

A brief pause while the second man (I almost called him gentleman) looked around to note the three of us, all white, were the only ones around.

“The problem is the n……”

“Exactly!”

“They’ve been a problem since we brought them here.”

“Damn right.”

“I heard something like sixty-five of those n….. were killed in Chicago this past weekend, and I thought, ‘well that’s a good start.”

Laughter among them both. At this point I couldn’t decide whether to say something, leave, or get on the treadmill and plug in my headphones to watch something less stressful, like the Manafort trial update.

Then this:

“I need to start attending meetings again.”

“You should. We miss you there.”

“I wish I could be up in Washington this weekend.”

“Yeah, especially now with Trump. He’s gonna get rid of those colored. Every last dang one of ‘em.”

I read once to never suppress anger; it isn’t healthy. So, okay…I had to say something.

“Wow.”

“What’s that?”

“That’s really pretty repulsive, the way you guys are talking about other people.”

“We aren’t talking about other people. We talking about n…..” “Yeah, mind your own business.”

I can’t figure out which is worse, that they are ignorant, or that they actually went to school.

“You know, Bob, you can just…”

“I was going to mind my own business. I can’t figure out if I should just keep my mouth shut and let us all think the way we want to think, which is absolutely how it should work in this country, or if I should go home and do what it is I do and write about you guys for the Sentinel (local paper) or the Washington Post, or anywhere to show that racism is alive and well in Deltaville.”

“Why don’t you mind your own business.”

I thought of Marley’s ghost when he stands up and screams at Scrooge, “Mankind was my business! The common welfare was my business!” Instead I apologized for interrupting but continued to talk to myself, loud enough for them to hear, while I rode the bike, and occasionally I directed my quiet tirade at them:

“Unbelievable. Unreal. I’m here with two grown, mature men who are stupid enough to think they’re better than others. Geez I’m sick of this. (to them) How is it possible that you can be so ignorant!? Where’d you learn to hate like that?! (to myself again) unreal. I’m writing about this, I’ll send it to the Washington Post. Geez, (to them) You guys read the Washington Post (I laugh). I’m writing about you guys. Someone’s got to shed light on how wide spread this problem is.”

I rode the treadmill for a while with one headphone in, the other dangling, and they were silent the whole time except to talk about the Redskins. I wanted to leave right away to get some work done so I went to them before I left and said, “Hey, Guys, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to be so rude, I really didn’t. Just caught me at a bad time.” And they laughed and said of course and they weren’t awake yet either and no problem and blah and blah and felt very fine and good and all that, and I said, “But seriously, with no due respect at all, I’m writing about this. I’ll give you a head’s up when I know when and where it will be in print. The way you two talk and think about brothers of ours is repulsive. Have a good workout.”

And I left. Is it too early for a drink?

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Step Back

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A white-supremacist group is about to gather in Lafayette Park across from the White House. It is just one year since a similar group gathered in Charlottesville, Virginia, and violence broke out killing one person. It’s been three years since the riots after the death in Baltimore of Freddie Gray. That was just a year after the riots in Ferguson, Missouri, after the death of Michael Brown. It’s been nine years since the 2009 riots in Oakland after the shooting of Oscar Grant. It’s been twenty-two years since the riots protesting racial profiling in St. Petersburg, Florida. That was three years after the LA riots after the acquittal of police officers in the beating of Rodney King.

That wasn’t unlike the Miami riots of 1980 after the acquittal of four police officers in the death of Arthur McDuffie. He died while being arrested by four white police officers after a high-speed chase.

Forty-seven years since the summer of riots throughout the country.

Fifty years since the riots in 125 cities after the assassination of the Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King, Jr.

Fifty three years since the Watts Riots.

That was a year after the Civil Rights Act.

Which was one hundred and one years after emancipation.

In 2016, 38,658 people were killed by a gun in the United States, either in an assault, suicide, or accident.

According to a report out of Stockholm in May of this year, the world’s military budget is $1.7 trillion a year. Human Rights Watch notes a minimum of 50 million people were killed in the twentieth century because of their race or religion.

Wars currently active in the world accounted for, in 2017 alone, 14,000 deaths in Afghanistan, 13,000 in Iraq, 14,700 in Mexico in drug conflicts, 39,000 in Syria, and 17,000 in Yemen. I’ve left some off. Those are just the conflicts where over 10K have been killed; more than a dozen more are out there right now with more than a thousand deaths last year.

This is us. This is who we are. The human race, noted for being just slightly below the angels. Hell yeah.

Humanity’s default position has become assertive, aggressors. Power and greed have always been in control, but it used to be the other side didn’t have to lose for one side to win. It used to be when both sides of a conflict benefited, it was better for the world. No longer.

No wonder suicide is higher than ever; depression is diagnosed more than ever; the number of heart disease and stroke victims are higher than ever.

No wonder I have tried to turn off the news, turn toward nature, turn back my expectations of administrations around the world and their ability to solve any—ANY ONE—of the problems. Something has been missing. We need Superman. If Christ is coming back, now’s good.

I’m wondering more and more lately if there are any Mother Theresa’s alive and well, any Schweitzer’s, any King’s or Gandhi’s. It certainly doesn’t feel like it. In the years between my birth and turning ten, we saw the initiation of the Peace Corps, Earth Day, NASA’s moon launch, the Civil Rights Act, and more, including idealistic events like Woodstock. It is hard to find hope now. It is difficult to put a finger on possible solutions. I understand the world was a bit too idealistic in a time that also brought us so many riots, the Vietnam War, assassinations of heroes, and more. But just a little more idealism wouldn’t be so bad, would it?

I spend most of my time near water; maybe because of its constant unpredictability; maybe because of how true it is. It is cleansing; it is purifying. I really am finding it difficult to believe in much else anymore, but when I look out I remember what Gandhi said:

“You must not lose faith in humanity. Humanity is like an ocean; if a few drops of the ocean are dirty, the ocean does not become dirty.”

I’d like to believe that.

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I’ll be Outside

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In Isak Dinesen’s story “Wings,” she and Denys Finch-Hatton come upon a dead giraffe, shot and abandoned by poachers. Two lions are feeding upon the carcass, and they’re the same two which have been terrorizing villagers, so they decide to go out one night and kill the lions. They do. It’s tight writing and exciting narrative with just enough philosophical digression to make the piece not solely about 1920 Kenya.

Last night I thought about them out there, nothing but a gas light and one long gun, facing down two not-so-hungry-anymore lions. I came across a turtle trying to make it across the road before some wild car came by; and a great blue heron on top of a tree, sitting up nervously as we went by. He stayed; we aren’t that threatening.

While I live in what in some quarters can be considered wilderness, I don’t live in the wild. Even domestic preserves like Myakka in Florida had more dangerous wildlife than I ever saw in Africa.

In the story Denys points out that the lions were just doing what lions do. To which Karen Blixen (Dinesen’s real name) replies, “and we are just doing what we do. Shoot them.”

I would like to blend in to the wilderness more, go unnoticed. Some deer will stand still while I walk by, ready to run, determined to stay. Dogs, cats, and even squirrels seem attracted to me, and hummingbirds have taken to zeroing in on my bloodshot eyes. But I’d like to rest along the river or at a pond while wildlife calmly go about their business. I like to observe, to note how they handle the passing of time. I like to watch the osprey glide then find their way to their nest to feed their young. It would be a pleasure to do this without them wanting to fly away. It has certainly made me more stealth.

I believe I’d be more like Karen than Denys. The man had nerves of steel, but Karen was nervous, even scared, but nonetheless enjoyed the adrenaline rush that often accompanies life. Some endeavors come at a cost, but that cost—what at the extreme can be called a Death Wish—is what Denys was doing out there to begin with. I think he just wanted to experience the very happening of life, not its passing.

It is one thing to understand we are alive, here, now, resting on the passing of time. It is an entirely separate situation to be in tune to the pulse of life, to watch its chest rise and fall, to feel the breath of life on the back of your neck.

To a certain degree I find that in nature, in my version of wilderness, which seems to be rapidly retreating from the suburbs which have spread out like a flair on a paper towel. Maybe if I didn’t head down to the city every once in a while I might not appreciate as much the vibrations of life in nature; I don’t know. In the city when I get used to the sounds and the life I can predict its next move, and this is not so interesting, almost futile. In nature, every single time that deer does not move as I walk by is a surprise. Each osprey that dives for a fish and carries it to its young in the nest is nothing short of miraculous.

And so too the Carolina wrens when they sing; and the goldfinches, or the indigo buntings.

It has become difficult to be somewhere unarguable, somewhere absent of shallow conflicts, questionable motives.

I’ll take the wilderness, quietly.

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DNA Grandma: A Memory

 

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Michael with “GG”       August 23, 1913-April 15, 2005

My grandmother lived long enough (I was in my forties when she died) for me to know her well, and for my son to meet her several times. Not long before she passed away, he and I drove to New York to visit her. This previously published memory is from that trip. 

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We drove east on the Southern State Parkway on a clip out to eastern Long Island to visit my ninety-one-year old grandmother. Traffic backed up by Kennedy Airport an hour earlier, but that all thinned out until finally, after a quick stop at Stanley’s bakery in East Islip, we slipped out along Montauk highway, the October morning sun still in our eyes, and we swept past villages where islanders hosed down sidewalks and set up sale tables all along the main streets of every town from Oakdale to Montauk. In West Sayville my son said he was hungry again, so we ducked into some coffee shop for buttered rolls, crumb buns and juice. Some newbie teen wearing an “I’m hot on the Island” t-shirt gave away free bakery cookies, and Michael waited for those while I bought breakfast. We just wandered east and west until we headed to the hamlet of Oakdale.

At my grandmother’s, I knocked for five minutes, could hear the television streaming out from her second-story window. She didn’t answer so I called her on my cell from the sidewalk.

“Oh, you’re downstairs. You know, I thought I heard someone knocking so I looked out, and I thought it looked like you, but I wasn’t sure, so I watched TV for a while longer.”

“You knew I was coming at this time, right Grandma?”

“Is that Michael next to you? He’s so tall, how old is he now?” We talked from sidewalk to window, looking at each other.

“Grandma, can you buzz us in?”

She buzzed us in. We talked a while and I stared at the same furniture, same knick-knacks, same pictures she had around her since I was a child. She got rid of the plastic that covered the furniture when she lived in Queens, but I sat on the same like-new chair, her and Michael sat on the same sofa she had since the Kennedy Administration.

“How old are you now, Michael?” she asked.

“Eleven.”

She raised her eyebrows. She’d not seen him since he was three. “Is he your only one?” she called to me three feet away.

“Yes. He’s it.”

“Oh, Michael, that’s wonderful. Thank God you’re the only one—you’ll get everything. How old are you now?”

“Eleven.”

“He’s eleven. Oh my, I haven’t seen him since he was, what? Five?”

“Three.”

“Oh! Imagine. Is he the only one at home?”

“Yes, he’s it.”

“That’s something, Michael. Thank God you’re the only one at home. You have the house to yourself. How old are you now?”

“Eleven,” he answered, as if for the first time. He has more patience than I do.

“Eleven! Imagine. Is he the only one at home?”

“Yes, Grandma, I killed all the others.”

“Oh, Thank God you’re the only one at home—you’ll get everything!” she said, again. Twenty minutes of this. We talked. We remembered. I told her about the time she watched my siblings and me when our parents were away, and how I loved to call her weekly when I was in college. I’m sure she didn’t remember, but she always acted as if she did. She motioned toward the flowers on the coffee table and we said how pretty they were, and a few times I noticed her enjoy the breeze through her window. I looked at pictures on the walls and she told me who everyone was and when the picture had been taken, and I was happy to know at ninety-one-years old she still remembered.

“You’ve got a great memory, Grandma,” I said. “Better than mine!” She laughed and waved her hand.

“Oh there are many things I’ve forgotten,” she said, laughing quietly. Even now I can see her shoulders fold briefly in humility as she laughed.

We ate ham sandwiches on white bread and drank tea. We talked more about my mom, and she asked a lot about how my siblings were doing. She mentioned some cousins, and we talked about Michael and how she remembered being with him at his grandparents’ home in Virginia Beach. It was a pleasant morning and afternoon, and it made me wish I had spent more time with her when I was younger. We do that though, we appreciate people only after the time to spend with them runs thin.

Eventually, we left. Before we did, though, my grandmother asked Michael if he wanted anything.

“Take whatever you want. Anything, just take it.”

“Oh, no thank you though,” Michael answered politely, scanning the room.

“Oh, come on, take something. Take something from that shelf there—there’s some good stuff there,” she called out, sweeping her hand toward the dining room. I gave Michael a nod, let him know taking something in this situation might be a compliment, a way to let Grandma know we appreciate her. He picked up a bowling trophy my mother had won years earlier. Perfect. Later, in the car, he told me he chose that because he wanted to give it back to his own grandmother who had won it.

A few days later my grandmother called my mom and wanted to know who took the Goddamn trophy.

It is So Hard to Tell, Sometimes

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A steady rain fell throughout the day. The grass and trees remained still, and when the rains let up, birds moved about. It was one of those rains I remember from my childhood, when it rained all day and I spent it stretched out on the floor watching black and white movies or westerns, and I waited for the weather to pass so I could go outside, where a soft steam rose from the wet streets. Today was like that.

Along the river the rain made the water seem as if it was simmering, or schools of fish teased at the surface. Someday when I look back instead of ahead, it will be days like this I will miss. It was a peaceful day.

At an art show today in which Michael participated, across from his display sat a young woman, a girl of about sixteen, sitting alone at a small table with a display for an organization to help women who have been victims of abuse. She sat quietly looking out at the rain, sat there for four or five hours, reading, not checking her phone, just reading, talking to only a few people who stopped by to pick up information or make a donation. She seemed quite relaxed, watching the rain, reading.

I wondered if people didn’t stop so as not to be recognized as seeking help. It is a very small village and clearly many of the attendees knew each other. I considered perhaps being such a small village in rural Virginia not far from the Potomac and the Chesapeake, abuse was not that common. But I guessed that wasn’t true either.

I wondered if the girl was only a volunteer or was this mission perhaps something more significant to her. She sat so peacefully watching the rain, reading, and talked to the few who came to pick up information. I watched one woman walk away from the table, a brochure in her hand, and it was her last stop before leaving the area. It might be possible the young woman saved someone’s life today. It might be very possible. It is difficult to determine how what we perceive as small actions might be salvation for someone else.

I’m guessing the young woman knows this.

Peace is not easy to identify. Tim O’Brien once wrote of the beauty of Vietnam, staring into the languid green forest, dreamlike in its beauty, before going in to kill or be killed. And anyone who has been near water long enough understands the tow that can drag someone out to sea and drown him lies deep beneath the calm surface.

No wonder tranquility is difficult to come by. Most of us can adjust to the troubles in life so well that we hardly recognize peace at all, so that the slightest relief seems as a tremendous respite. But real peace, the kind that makes us feel safe from harm, is not easy to recognize if it ever comes along at all.

I’ve been fortunate. I have known such peace so often for so long. I have indeed been mercifully fortunate. Sometimes I know where to go to find it, like those early mornings when my son and I head to the water to watch the sunrise; it is a given. Other times it takes me by surprise. Like today, when I walked behind a building, standing under the overhang, and stared across a field of deep green lawn with trees in the distance, and a steady rain fell, not unlike the rains of my youth when worries were still decades away. I was caught off guard; I had been thinking about the young woman, wondering how she came to be at that table, reading, handing out brochures only to those who asked, and then I walked to the back and watched the rain.

Tonight it is raining still, and the steady sound on the skylight has a lulling effect. It was a good day, it was such a peaceful day. But not for everyone.

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Here. Now.

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It is the most sobering of realities that the further from humanity I step into the palm of nature, the more I am aware of humanity’s tragic state.

When I am in the towns and villages, and even more when I am on city streets, it is not difficult to look for and even find value, and without much difficulty or distraction. From the city parks where children play, from the new skyscrapers saving space and housing homeless, from the missions feeding the hungry, from the colleges and universities professing that perpetual discourse, from the street artists given the chance to shine, from the monuments reminding of heroes and saviors, from the church cross, the mosque dome, the temple star, the marches and parades and processions, hope exists and again and always chisels away at apathy, at lethargy. We see it just by looking around.

But then I step away and, from some distance, witness what simmers across humanity’s horizon. Defensiveness shifts to aggression, diplomacy turns toward ridicule, compassion is swallowed by greed, and understanding is absorbed by narrow-mindedness. Insignificant fissures when seen from a distance seem massive crevices no longer navigable. I step into the wilderness and turn back from where I walk and see little more than a conglomerate of desperate attempts to win without compromise. John Nash wrote that we must do what’s right for ourselves only if everyone else benefits, or we are destined toward demise. The voices of the Mother Theresa’s and Albert Schweitzer’s and Martin Luther King’s of this world are suffocating beneath the rising wave of ridicule, resentment, and retribution. We must help others not because of who they are but because of who we are. But from this vantage outside the city gates, winning is no longer defined as progress to benefit humanity, but the defeat of another. It seems the idea that someone must lose in order that one win has shrouded the reality about our species: we are tethered by truth. The progress of one is wholly and unequivocally dependent upon the progress of every one.

So I prefer nature. Its truths are absolute. It relies upon respect, it has no subjective approach, and it shows no favoritism. Its instinctive bend is respect.

I am not smart enough to understand the causes of a crumbling society, and I have not nearly the ability to keep pace with comprehending the effects of racism, ridicule, greed, and power. But from this view in the wilderness, society is slipping away from any ideal it may have once pursued, and the climb back is not easily traversed. Then I turn toward the waters and wild lands still unblemished by the body politic, and I have that hope again that there is balance, that some guardrail of reason will keep us from straying too far.

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