Monday, November 20, 2017

The Meaning of Friendship


This is the third in a series of reflections on friendship that I shared with my men’s group known as “Brothers on a Journey” that meets at All Saints Episcopal Church every Monday night.  You can read the first two at:

As I looked back over the friendship I formed during the first half of my life, I realized that although I had some amazing friends, I have a feeling of loss as well as gratitude for those who enriched my life during this period. Many of these friends of yesteryear I have lost touch with, and I miss them. I did a google search and discovered that the Dalai Lama had some wise and comforting words to say about such transient friendships:

"Old friends pass away, new friends appear. It is just like the days. An old day passes, a new day arrives. The important thing is to make it meaningful: a meaningful friend - or a meaningful day." 

This is a very enlightened perspective, yet the feeling of loss and longing is also very real and worth taking seriously. This desire for a friendship that doesn’t pass away is, I think, at the core of our Christian faith—we yearn for relationships that last for a lifetime and beyond.

Eight years ago I lost my best friend, who also happened to be my wife, yet hardly a day passes that I don’t think of Kathleen. When she died, I took comfort in the words of William Penn: “Life is eternal and love is immortal and death is only a horizon, and an horizon is nothing but the limit of our sight.”

The pain of her loss has subsided but not the memory and the feeling that she is still with me, hovering just beyond my line of sight. I can’t see what lies beyond the horizon of this life, but through faith I catch glimpses and look forward to the day when Kathleen and I will see each other face-to-face once again in a place I can’t even imagine since our marriage and our friendship was grounded in something very special, something that will never die. Kathleen’s example also inspires and challenges me to live my life in such a way that I will be worthy of being reunited with her.

I was asked to define friendship and wasn’t able to come up with a definition. So I went once again to Google and discovered words of wisdom that spoke to me. According Muhammad Ali, one of my unlikely heroes in grad school:  “Friendship is the hardest thing in the world to explain. It's not something you learn in school. But if you haven't learned the meaning of friendship, you really haven't learned anything.” 

Ali is right that friendship isn’t taught in school. Certainly not in grad school, where we were mostly too busy and too preoccupied with our careers to make lasting friends. I had to learn about the meaning of friendship in the school of life and through the Religious Society of Friends. I also did some research on friendship to prepare for this share. I went back to my roots, the roots of our civilization, namely, the Greeks. The Greeks believed that friendship is a kind of love. You probably have heard the Greek language has three words for love: eros (sexual desire), agape (spiritual love) and philia (friendship).

Eros is a physical desire for another person that we care about and long to be with. Agape is an unselfish desire for what benefits that other person. Philia has elements of both. In his Nicomachean Ethics, Book VIII) Aristotle said there are three bases for friendship:
  • .       Pleasure. This could be a friendship based on mutual enjoyment of anything ranging from sports to literature to drinking vintage wine or micro-brewed beer.
  • .       Utility. Friendships that are mutually useful and beneficial usually arise out of some shared activity, like one’s job or career. Phil calls these “instrumental friendships.”
  • .       Virtue.  These are sometimes called spiritual friendship and are grounded in a common sense of goodness and purpose.

In real life, most friendships are a mixture of all these elements.

So here’s my definition of friendship.

Friendship is a relationship of mutual caring and trust, based on shared interests and enjoyments as well as a shared commitment to something greater than oneself, i.e. goodness, truth, justice, etc.
In the first half of my life, most of my friendships were based mainly on shared pleasures. Love of literature, love of ideas, love of music and art, and love of coarser pleasures like going for walks, drinking alcohol, or smoking pot. The English comic writer P.G. Wodehouse wrote that  “there is no surer foundation for a beautiful friendship than a mutual taste in literature.”  From what I have read of Wodehouse, I’m sure he would agree that alcohol, preferably a very expensive sherry, enhances such literary friendships.

Other friendships were useful. I made friends with class mates, colleagues and co-workers. We are on friendly terms with such people because these relationships are mutually beneficial. When you and the other person no longer need each other, these friendships tend to fade.

The friendships that last the longest and are most deeply satisfying are the ones that are grounded in goodness and spirituality. These kinds of friendship also open us up to new insights into ourselves and the world. As the French writer Anais Nin wrote: “Each friend represents a world in us, a world possibly not born until they arrive, and it is only by this meeting that a new world is born.” ― Anaïs NinThe Diary of Anaïs Nin, Vol. 1: 1931-1934.

Finally, I have been inspired by what Jesus says about friendship, particularly how we can have an intimate relationship with the Divine. Quakers have adopted this ideal friendship as the basis for their name, the Religious Society of Friends. In John 15, Jesus tells his disciples that there is only one commandment that really matters. Love. He then defines love as the willingness to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. This is a high bar for friendship, yet it is important to remember that real friendship usually entails some self-sacrifice. Jesus says that if we follow this commandment to love unselfishly, we not only deepen our friendships with each other, we also become friends of Jesus: I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master's business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you.” This is a truly astonishing idea—that limited mortals can become friends with God. It makes no logical sense, yet we are told it is possible through the power of love. Spiritual love, agape.

Obstacles to friendship: What blocks us from becoming friends with others? How do we choose our friends? Do we pick people who will help open up new worlds within us, or only those who make us feel comfortable with who we are now? Do we seek out friends of different backgrounds and ethnicities from our own

After sharing this reflection I talked about some of the following friends who have been important to me during the second half of my life.  
  • ·         Ed Miller, the Friend who introduced me to the Religious Society of Friends in Princeton, NJ.
  • ·         Janet Riley, a Friend with whom I worked on a Soviet/American joint book project in the 1980s and who has become a deep and lifelong friend.
  • ·         John Ishvardas Abdullah, my Sufi friend who wrote the book One World Under God. I got to know John through the South Coast Interfaith Council. He is one of several wonderful Muslim friends that I made after 9/11 who have expanded my spiritual horizons.
  • ·         Jeff Utter, a UCC pastor, and Joseph Prabhu, a professor of philosophy and religion, have become my spiritual “amigos” and we meet regularly to walk and talk. We met through the Parliament of the World’s Religion, where I have many wonderful friends of different faiths.
  • ·         Robert Cornell, a therapist/gardener friend who started Brothers on a Journey. We meet once a month at the Huntington Gardens to have heart-to-heart talks and enjoy the beautiful gardens (we are both avid gardeners).
  • ·         Mark Schmidt, a formerly homeless man who is a guest in our home and has become a good friend over the years, with a passion of justice and a great sense of humor. 
  •       My wife Jill, who has become my best friend and spiritual companion, opening me up in so many ways through her deep love of Jesus and justice, as well as of honesty and caring for others. 

Our group then responded to the following questions about friendship and there was a rich time of sharing.

Queries on friendship for reflection:
  • What happened in your life that helped you to understand the meaning of friendship?
  • What do you do to cultivate friends?
  • What has stood in the way of your friendships

Sunday, November 19, 2017

Response to the LA Times editorial "The Nuclear Football Code"

I’m appalled that the LA Times doesn’t support common-sense bills prohibiting the President from launching a preemptive first nuclear strike without Congressional authorization (“The Nuclear Code Football,” 11/19/18). A nuclear war isn’t a football game. If the President launches a first-strike nuclear attack against, say, North Korea, hundreds of thousands of innocent people would die immediately; and millions more would doubtless die as a result of retaliation by the North Koreans and probably the Chinese. Our Constitution expressly forbids the President from starting any war without Congressional authorization. Our founders would be horrified to learn that Congress allows the President, a fallible human being, to initiate a war that could end human life on this planet. I’m glad my Representative, Judy Chu, co-sponsored the bill prohibiting the President from launching a first nuclear strike. It would be even better if we began a process to ban nuclear weapons altogether.

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Quakers and Recent Hurricanes




Landslide from Tropical Storm Nate Affected Monteverde
Friends School in Costa Rica
Hurricanes are not respecters of persons, or places. Intensified by climate disruption, deadly hurricanes and storms swept through the Caribbean, Latin America and parts of United States, especially Florida and Texas, with unprecedented force. Quakers were among those affected by these historic storms.

Kenya Casanova, a Cuban Friend, reported the damage from hurricane Irma in her area mostly affected agriculture and homes. There was a total loss of 20 million Cuban pesos, with 2582 houses damaged and 100 totally demolished. There was a lack of some food and construction materials, but not much damage to the roofs of the Friends’ houses. The properties of Friends Churches were spared.

Live Oak Meeting in Houston, TX, was unharmed by Hurricane Harvey and remained high and dry. Other Houston Friends were not so fortunate. Friendswood Friends Church was flooded, as well as many of their members' homes. Bayshore Friends Church in Baycliff, Lighthouse Fellowship of Friends in League City, and Friends Community Church in Angleton were also affected.

Hurricane Irma did not affect Tampa, FL, Meeting as badly as expected, though a Tampa Friend reports that residents are feeling the effects of climate change through more frequent and more severe flooding. She has sold her family home in anticipation of what climate disruption will do to her area in the near future. 

Monteverde Friends School was seriously affected by Tropical Storm Nate which created a state of emergency in Costa Rica and also in Monteverde, a small community located in the Cordillera de Tilarán. Roughly a four-hour drive from the Central Valley, Monteverde is considered a major ecotourism destination in Costa Rica. Cut off from the main town of Santa Elena by a washed out bridge, no electricity/internet/telephone, limited water and food supplies, and uncertainty about future landslides and safety of their persons and houses, Monteverde’s small community of Quakers came together to support each other and safely navigate the challenges.

Monteverde was first settled by 11 Quaker families from Alabama who decided to leave the United States and settle in Costa Rica in the early 1950’s.  They did so because of strong beliefs against the military system in the US and because Costa Rica had chosen to abolish its army. Because the Quakers needed a place in which to educate their children, they founded Monteverde Friends School soon after their arrival, and it has operated ever since. The first settlers wrote, “We believe we should try to create an atmosphere for our children in which real values, as we see them, are given first place. As part of this, a school is maintained in which we try to help our children grow strong spiritually and mentally.”  Today, the school mostly serves non-Quaker Costa Rican children who live in the zone. For the many friends who have asked how they can help, the most tangible support is financial donations to the school. Visit mfschool.org/donate to see donation options, and please consider a monthly pledge to provide ongoing support for families in need. 

I am pleased that my meeting, Orange Grove Meeting in Pasadena, has made a pledge of $500 to help this school. I hope that Jill and I have a chance to visit it someday!

Monteverde Friends School in Costa Rica

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Literary and Professional Friendships: The Snows of Yesteryear

“There is no surer foundation for a beautiful friendship than a mutual taste in literature.” ― P.G. Wodehouse

“Friendship is unnecessary, like philosophy, like art.... It has no survival value; rather it is one of those things which give value to survival.” ― C.S. LewisThe Four Loves

A lot of my friendships in college and grad school centered on my dream of becoming a writer and a poet. In 1967, I went to Boston University after a checkered high school career. I took classes in Greek at Princeton University and was editor of Princeton High School’s literary magazine, and I had the distinction of being the first student busted for pot. One of my friends at this time was Arkie Kempton, son of the journalist Murray Kempton. We shared a passion for Motown music as well as for pot.  Arkie was also an excellent writer who wrote a book with the cool title: Boogaloo: the Quintessence of American Popular Music.  When I got to Boston, I started hanging out with Arkie and his friend Roy Campanella, Jr, son of the baseball player. In a darkened Harvard dorm room we smoked hashish and listened to bebop jazz and I became a devotee of Charlie Parker. I was also using acid on a regular basis and my brain got so fried that I checked into Mass Mental to detox, much to the dismay of my parents. When I was released, I began seeing a therapist but my confidence in my sanity was shaken for many years. This stint in mental institution would help me later when I became a student of a poet whose career started in a mental institution.
One of my best friends in college was a rock musician named Jeff Pitcher, a long-haired bass player from New Jersey with a lisp and a hip way of speaking that expanded my vocabulary. We roomed together for year. In this kaleidoscopic world of sex, drugs and rock and roll, my interest in classics faded, but my dream of becoming a writer intensified. Living in the slums, hanging out with street people and artists, seemed fodder for writing the great American novel or poem I felt I was destined to write. In my shabby apartment on Symphony Road, not far from Symphony Hall, I wrote poems influenced by dead poet like Rimbaud and Ezra Pound, trying to make gems out of broken wine bottles.
In my junior year, I had was given the chance to realize my dream of becoming a poet when I was accepted to the poetry workshop of Anne Sexton. There I made friends with some of the most gifted neurotics in New England, and my life was never the same.
Two of the most memorable members of Anne’s workshop were Suzanne Berger and Ellen Bass, both very different. I became more or less friends with both of them. Ellen was a feminist poet who went on to write many books like “I’m Not Your Laughing Daughter” and “No More Masks.” While I was in grad school, I invited Ellen to give a poetry reading at Rutgers. Suzanne wrote intense, personal, imagistic poetry very much in the spirit of our teacher Anne Sexton.  I haven’t seen Suzanne since college but I’ve learned that she has been taking part in annual memorials for Anne at Forsyth Chapel in the cemetery where Anne was buried. A newspaper account from 2006 quotes Suzanne as saying:  
"Anne wrote very stimulating poetry. She was very vibrant and very serious inside the classroom. She launched a lot of poets.”
That’s very true. Despite or maybe because of  Anne’s brilliant poetry, and crazy life, she encouraged a lot of us to try our wings as poets. In fact, the last time I saw Anne, I told her I wasn’t sure what I was going to do with my life. “Why not become a poet?” she said, smiling at me with her large, intense eyes. I will always cherish these words of encouragement. For a couple of years, I tried being a poet. Now I have settled for simply letting poems come to me like butterflies that arrive unexpectedly in my garden.
I don’t know what happened to all the amazing poets that I met during this two-year period. We had beautiful, intense friendships but like fireworks that shoot across the sky, they didn’t last.  I’ve been thinking of a poem by the French poet Francois Villon who wrote a famous ballade about beautiful women, all of whom have melted away, like snow. Ou sont les neiges d’antan? Where are the snows of yesterday? I sometimes wonder: Where are the friends of yesterday? It would be wonderful to have a reunion someday, but how this will happen, I have no idea. The only poet from that period I still am in touch with is Henry Stimpson, who co-edited Boston University’s literary magazine with me. He started a PR business but still writes and publishes an occasional poem. We’ve stayed friends and occasionally correspond via Facebook. When I was working on my novel set in Boston, we had dinner together at Legal Seafood. I like him better now than when I knew him in college. He seemed dull back then, compared with the stellar poets who were in Sexton’s workshop. Now Henry seems like what he actually is: a nice guy with a flair for writing clever verses.
After college, my father died and I went on the road, following the example of Jack Kerouac, although I paid for my train fare. I took the Trans-Canadian Railroad across Canada, stopping off in various cities along the way. I ended up in Gastown, the Greenwich Village of Vancouver, and met a lot of interesting artist types while writing for underground newspapers. One of them, Jim Cooper, became a lifelong friend. Jim was raised Mormon, but he abandoned his faith and became an artist. He was fascinated with the I Ching and composed illustrations for it. He presided over a household full of artists, hippies and spiritual seekers where I lived on and off for a year. The year I spent in Vancouver was one of the happiest of my life. It was year when I connected with God and felt as if God were as real as an intimate Friend. I haven’t always been faithful to this divine friendship, I have been neglectful and preoccupied with lesser things, but my Friend has never forsaken me and I am grateful that He is and always will be at the center of my life.
Jim and I collaborated on various spiritually based art projects before I left to go back to Princeton. Over the years Jim and I stayed in touch off and on, but the really precious moment in our friendship happened five years ago. I got word from him through Facebook that he had cancer and was utterly alone and friendless. His divorced wife and child had rejected him completely. He was living on welfare and eking out a living with occasional art projects. I called him and we talked and renewed our friendship. I also prayed for him. Then something amazing happened. He found that he had fathered a daughter that he knew nothing about because the young woman he impregnated was a Mormon and her family prevented her from having anything to do with the father of her child. She kept this secret and only in the last few years did the daughter realize who her real father was. She reached out to Jim and they met for the first time on Easter Sunday five years ago. It was an incredible experience for both of them. In fact, it was nothing short of a miracle.
I was glad to be Jim’s friend during this period and felt the presence of the Spirit as he joyfully shared his story with me. He seems to be doing much better with his life since connecting with his long lost daughter.  
In 1974, after spending time in Canada and going to Greece, I returned to Princeton to be with my widowed mother and sister and figure out what I was going to do with my life. I did odd jobs but found nothing satisfying until I started substitute teaching at an all-black inner city school in Trenton, NJ. I was moved by being part of a school very different from what I had experienced in Princeton, a school where students struggled with economic issues much more serious than my family ever did. I really enjoyed teaching and decided to go back to school and earn a teaching certificate. At this time, I met my first wife, Maureen, the daughter of a Presbyterian minister whose brother had been a friend in junior high (he was another odd ball, as PKs often are). Maureen and I got married when I was 25 years old. I spent the next seven years earning a Masters and doctorate from Rutgers in 1982, the same year Maureen and I got divorced.
I made a few friends during the years I worked on my doctorate and taught college, but these professional friendships didn’t last. We were too busy competing for grades and jobs, and we didn’t really had time for deep friendships. I made some memorable and very strange friends at a Catholic High School in NJ where I taught for a year, but writing about them would involve a novella, if not a novel. And it would be X-rated!
At Carleton College in Minnesota, where I taught for two years, I made friends with a professor named John Tallmadge who had a passionate love of nature and was very different from the other profs there. He was down-to-earth and deeply spiritual in a way that I resonated with. In 1997 he published a memoir called “Meeting the Tree of Life: A Teacher’s Path.” Reading the blurb for this book reminded me why I valued John’s friendship so much:

Tallmadge was a child of the late sixties with a Yale doctorate in comparative literature under his arm and an empathy for nature in his soul. As a young idealist, he sought the authenticity, power, and possibility of the wilderness by following the intellectual and physical trails blazed by Henry Thoreau and John Muir. His memoir is an attempt to discover another, more private, inner landscape.”  

John wasn’t a Quaker, but he had a Quaker heart and soul. Just after he was let go from Carleton, he wrote a Pendle Hill pamphlet called “Therefore Choose Life: The Spiritual Challenge of the Nuclear Age.” Not only is this a theme I can resonate with, Pendle Hill is the  Quaker study center where I spent a year learning about Quakerism and where I met and courted my wife Kathleen. After leaving Carleton College, John and I went our separate ways, but I still feel a spiritual connection with him. Inspired by writing this reflection, I looked him up on Facebook and found that he is living in Cincinnati. I sent him a friend request and hope he’ll respond. It would be wonderful to connect with him again.

My real and lasting friendships began in 1984 when I discovered the Religious Society of Friends. I was 35 year old. Looking back, I realize that I didn’t know anything about spiritual friendship until this point in my life. My friendships up to then were mainly based on shared interests and emotional affinities. When I became a Quaker, I learned how to be a friend at a deeper level. Over the past 33 years, I’ve come to know hundreds of Quakers in a way that I never knew anyone before. That’s because we’ve shared our lives together, much like what we do in our Brothers on Our Journey gatherings. We gather for worship sharing. We listen to each other’s stories. And we’re committed to each other and to the Religious Society of Friends for the long haul. Even when we have conflicts and drive each other crazy, we still try to stay Friends. Being a Quaker has also helped me to become spiritual friends with people from other faiths. I now feel as if I belong to what Martin Luther King called the “beloved community,” a circle of friends who are deeply committed to each other, to our Divine Creator, and to justice and peace. 

Friendship as a Journey and as an Art: Childhood and Adolescent Friends

"Old friends pass away, new friends appear. It is just like the days. An old day passes, a new day arrives. The important thing is to make it meaningful: a meaningful friend - or a meaningful day." Dalai Lama
“Each friend represents a world in us, a world possibly not born until they arrive, and it is only by this meeting that a new world is born.” ― Anaïs NinThe Diary of Anaïs Nin, Vol. 1: 1931-1934
“Friendship is the hardest thing in the world to explain. It's not something you learn in school. But if you haven't learned the meaning of friendship, you really haven't learned anything.” ― Muhammad Ali

The theme of my men's group is "friendship" and it has proven to be a rich topic for us to explore during our sharing time. It has led me to think about how my understanding and practice of friendship has evolved over the course of my life. I have come to see friendship as an art, like the art of listening, that needs to be cultivated for it to reach its fullest and best expression. I also see friendship as a journey—an opportunity to explore and develop one’s own identity and life purpose through interaction with others.
I have divided my friendships into three phases, each of which had a somewhat different basis. This is just a rough scheme, of course: friendships are much more complex, as my narrative will show.

1)  Childhood and adolescent friendships are generally based on shared interests and emotional bonds, and are often partly determined by geography. 
2)  College and professional friendships are  based on shared goals and aspirations, and are usually determined by professional choices.
3)  Spiritual friendships are based on  a sense of something greater than oneself bringing us together for a purpose greater than either of us can understand. These friendships tend to be lifelong.

My childhood friends were determined in part by geography. I grew up in Princeton, NJ, a town noted for its prestigious Ivy League college, but my background was working class and immigrant. I grew up on Pine St, a narrow alley-like street located near gas stations and diners, where mostly Italians and other immigrants lived. For the first few years of my life, my parents rented an apartment owned by an elderly Greek couple named the Gregories. My best childhood friend was Jack Robertiello, an Italian kid a year or two younger than me.  I used to go to his next door apartment for a glass of water because his mother’s water tasted better than mine. That’s because Jack’s mother gave me cool water from a pitcher in the refrigerator and my mother gave me yucky tepid tap water. When Jack’s mother poured her cool, refrigerated water for Jack and me, she had to be careful that she gave us each exactly the same amount. If one of us got a drop more water than the other, we’d start complaining. Loudly.
My mother loved to tell the story about the time that Jack and I were around four or five years old and were making mud pies. She heard us arguing and came to find out why. “Jack wants to eat his mud pie and I won’t let him,” I said. This seems funny to me since Jack eventually became a food critic and published a book about Italian restaurants in New York City with the cool title  Mangia. “Mangia” is what Italian mothers say when you go to eat at their home. “Mangia, mangia” means “eat your food!” I grew up eating a lot of awesome Italian as well as Greek food.
Jack and I remained friends until my mid twenties—he was even the best man at my first marriage—but there was always a bit of rivalry between us. He went to Catholic school, became an athlete, and was a voracious reader and keenly critical connoisseur of music, comic books, food, you name it. I have to confess that Jack was much cleverer and cooler than me. He was also a rebel like me and this made his life complicated and interesting. He got a football scholarship to a Catholic college but had to drop out after a year because he spent most of his time partying rather than studying. He moved to Alaska to be with a girlfriend who was a dancer, and then returned to Princeton and became a bar tender and a waiter.  He eventually married a New York Times photographer and found his calling as a New York food critic.
Our friendship waned in part because Jack was very allergic to religion.  He was best man at my wedding but we drifted apart after my marriage to a Presbyterian minister’s daughter. I don’t think Jack approved of my becoming conventional and going to church and grad school. I haven’t seen him in 40 years but I still harbor the somewhat illusive hope that one of these days, we might get together for a meal, at an Italian restaurant of course.
My friends during my elementary school days were kids on my block, most of whom were not as interesting as Jack. They came from working class families like mine and displayed very little intellectual curiosity. I was different. I was precocious. I loved to read and to write and this got me the attention of teachers who were looking for bright students. In junior high, I was placed in honors classes and had the chance to become friends with the elite of Princeton, kids whose parents were academics and professional and in some cases, Nobel Prize winners. This was an incredible new world for me since my parents hadn’t completed high school. My father worked as a janitor at Princeton and my mother worked as a waitress and a seamstress.  They were both avid readers and quite intelligent but they were not educated and lacked the sophistication associated with Princeton. We lived in a modest home and didn’t own a car. I became keenly aware of class differences at an early age. A townie with academic potential, I didn’t fit into any mold.
In junior high I became friends with what we now call “nerds.” Interesting odd balls who loved books and were not very good at sports. One of the most memorable of my junior high friends was Dennis Nurkse, an eccentric kid who came to Princeton from Britain. His father was an economist from Estonia. Nurkse (that’s what we always called him, never Dennis) wrote off beat poetry and cultivated quirks like drinking Lime Juice. (I think that’s because he had British accent and identified with being a Limey.) Nurkse and I went on long walks around Carnegie Lake, talking endlessly about books and poetry just like the Romantic poets Wordsworth and Coleridge. Nurkse eventually went on to become the poet laureate of Brooklyn, a title I envy. Let me say it once again: Poet laureate of Brooklyn! How cool is that! I haven’t seen Nurkse since high school, but I will never forget him. Incidentally, his brother Peter became a Quaker and lives in Northern California. Nurkse was the kind of person you’d find only in places like Princeton, and Brooklyn.
I was a rebel at an early age and that affected my friendships. After reading H.G. Wells and the Communist Manifesto, I became a socialist and rejected religion in the seventh grade.  Church seemed boring and the history of holy wars and witch hunts and pogroms appalled me.  I was devouring books by authors like T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, and Franz Kafka and immersed myself in the world of ideas, which seemed far more interesting than the Episcopal Church my mother dragged me to, with its smells and bells and mind-numbing sermons.
Given my rejection of Christianity during adolescence, it’s not surprising that some of my best friends were secular Jews. Sam Goldberger was the son of a theoretical physicist who worked on the Manhattan Project and became President of Cal Tech. I used to hang out at his home on the other side of Nassau Street where the professors lived, many of them in Tutor style homes. Sam’s parents lived in an A Frame that stood out just like his Jewish identity.  The Goldbergers were part of an influx of Jewish intellectuals who came to Princeton in the wake of Albert Einstein.
Sam and I studied Latin together in junior high school and received special tutoring from our antiquated Latin teacher, a chinless woman with pleated skirts named Mrs. Richards. She took time to teach us because she saw our aptitude and hoped we’d become classicists, but behind her back, with the cruelty of adolescence, we loved to mock her. As we completed four years of high school Latin in two years and learned to read Cicero’s “On Friendship” in the original Latin, Sam and I became close friends, though there was also some rivalry between us. His parents had extraordinarily high expectations for their son. His mother was initially worried when her son had befriended a boy whose parents never went to college, so she somehow managed to find out my IQ. When she discovered it was higher than her son’s, I got the royal treatment at her home. Sam was not terribly pleased by her behavior, but we learned to laugh at her (as teenagers tend to do) and remained friends because we both were insatiably curious about books and ideas and we loved to walk and talk together. 
Sam went on to get a doctorate in psychology at Stony Brook University and then became a Sufi sheik, much to the disappointment and dismay of his parents, especially his mother. His mother told me that she wanted him to major in “real science” so he could receive a Nobel Prize. Having a son who led dances of universal peace was not her idea of success.  Sam and I stayed connected for a while we were in our twenties because of our mutual interest in religion but we drifted apart when he moved to California. The last time I saw him when in 1990 when his father became president of Cal Tech and I was invited to visit him and his parents here in Pasadena. At that time, I had a PhD, so my wife and I were warmly welcomed in the home of this illustrious physicist. Sam lived in the Bay area and we talked about getting together but it never happened. I’d love to see Sam again, but he has disappeared from my radar screen. It would be interesting to connect with him again.
My other best friend was also Jewish but from a very different background. Peter Mark was a Hungarian Jew whose parents both were in German concentration camps. They lost their spouses during the Holocaust and suffered from what we now call PTSD. This had a huge influence on Peter. He was brilliant and funny in his odd Jewish way, but he was also very broken. He reminded me of Franz Kafka and Lenny Bruce. Kafka said, “There is hope but not for us.” Peter used to say: “Things always get darkest just before they turn completely black.” My mother loved Peter because of his sensitive soul, his sense of humor, and his good heart. (She didn’t like Sam because she saw him as a snob and my mother hated snobs.)  
Peter’s family life was very complicated, especially after his mother died.  Peter was exasperated by his father who was an excellent photographer but a lousy businessman. Peter ended up dropping out of college to help his father manage a failing liquor store in Trenton, NJ. Peter and his father ended up moving to Pittsburgh, where Peter had briefly attended college. The last time I saw Peter he was eking out a precarious living painting Victorian houses in Pittsburgh. Like his Dad, Peter was a lousy businessman, but good-hearted.  
Three years after graduating from college, I wanted to earn some money to go to Greece and visit the island where my father was born. This was a way for me to honor my Dad who died in 1971, just before I graduated. Peter and I decided to go into the painting business together. I saw it as a quick way to earn money, but our efforts didn’t pan out. Maybe it was the ironic name Peter chose for our painting company, “The Soft Underbelly of Europe” (a reference to what Churchill called Southern Europe) or maybe it was our slogan, “Good as any any, better than some.” But the main reason we made no money is that Peter smoked way too much pot, and was terrible at estimating jobs. After two months, we parted ways no richer than when we started. I started my own painting venture and in six weeks, I earned enough money painting houses to finance my trip to Greece.

I owe a great debt to Peter, however. He helped me to understand a little more clearly what it’s like to be a child of a Holocaust survivor. He helped me to see the world through a Jewish perspective. And he had a great sense of humor. When I wrote my novel Relics of America, I include a story about a Jewish photographer loosely based on episodes from the life of Peter’s father. I hope someday Peter and I will cross paths. I still have a very warm spot in my heart for him.
In my next posting, I will explore the friendships that developed while I was in college and grad school--my professional friendships. 

Hollywood fires a fake President for sexual misconduct, while our "real President" faces no sanctions for similar charges

It  seems ironic that Kevin Spacey, a "fake President," is being fired, and his career ruined, because of alleged sexual misconduct while our "real President" faces no sanctions for similar charges. I never dreamed that I'd see the day when Hollywood would be upholding a higher moral standard than our government. Of course, if a Democrat had been elected President and was an admitted, unrepentent "pussy grabber," he would have faced immediate impeachment, just as Clinton did, from a self-righteous Republican Congress. Politics trumps morality in DC. In the past, elected officials sinned, just like everyone else, but never so openly and with such impunity. And when they were caught, they resigned. Trump is the first politician to break with this tradition. He is the "exceptional" president.

Sadly, we can no longer tell our children to look to the President as an example. Quite the opposite. It is painful to see Melania going to schools to speak out against bullying when she is married to one of the nation's top bullies.

I am glad that women are stepping out and making accusations against
men who have abused their positions of power to take advantage of those who are weaker and more vulnerable. This is something that conservatives and liberals should be able to agree on. The Bible makes it clear that it is wrong to engage in sexual immoral behavior. Feminists believe it is wrong to use sex to exploit others. Having sex with a minor or pressuring a woman to have sex isn't a partisan issue. It's a moral issue. And the buck should stop with the President.

For the latest in the charges of sexual misconduct against Trump, see http://www.cnn.com/2017/10/15/politics/trump-campaign-subpoena-sexual-assault-allegations/index.html

Saturday, November 11, 2017

Trump is no Reagan or Nixon. He lacks what it takes to be an effective leader.

When I was part of the Quaker US/USSR Relations Committee in the 1980s (my first Quaker project), I  visited the Soviet Union many times and was blown away when Reagan went to Moscow and made friendly overtures to Gorbachev. He even gave him as a gift a copy of the movie "Friendly Persuasion," stating that this is a classic American film about the conflict of conscience during times of war and shows that "Quakers have a better way." Reagan's meeting with Gorbachev was historically significant because Reagan was a well-known anti-Communist and Cold Warrior, and no one questioned his motives or his integrity. As a result, Reagan was able to negotiate an important nuclear reduction treaty and helped to end the Cold War. Even though I disagreed with Reagan on most issues, I had to give him credit for doing the right thing when it came to the USSR.

Similarly, when Nixon went to China and opened up diplomatic relations, it was historic because Nixon had similar credibility. Both Republican Presidents were able to do what a liberal Democrat would probably have found politically impossible because Republicans were have accused them of being "soft on Communism" or worse, a traitor.

Trump is a very different breed of Republican president from these two men. Because his staff reached out to the Russians, apparently to find dirt on Clinton, and because the Russians clearly interfered in the election, Trump is compromised. No one knows for certain what kind of dark secrets are lurking in his tax returns or in some Russian espionage agency's file. All we know is that Trump is in a state of denial that makes him look ridiculous and out of touch with reality. This will make it difficult, if not impossible, to be an effective deal maker.

He is similarly compromised in his relationship with China After making outrageous accusations against China during the campaign, he now allows himself to be flattered and cajoled by Xi Jinping, who is in a much stronger political position than  Trump. Trump is in a weaker bargaining position than any previous President in part because he has savagely cut the diplomatic corps he needs to be effective.

It is sad to see America declining as a world power because Trump is ignorant of what it takes to be a world leader. The only thing he seems capable of is selling weapons. As a result, the US  has become not the leader, but the arms dealer of the world. How sad!

Friday, November 10, 2017

Feinstein opposes nuclear build up, and wants to prevent the President from launching a nuclear strike without Congressional approval

Our FCNL Advocacy Team paid a visit on Senator Feinstein's office this week, where we were pleased to learn that she supports Senate Bill 200, which would prohibit the President from ordering a preemptive nuclear strike without congressional authorization. She also supports a Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty and opposes funding for new nuclear weapons. (See her letter below.)

I am thrilled that Feinstein sees how important it is to prevent the President (any President) from having the power to start a nuclear war without oversight. This seems like a no-brainer, yet most members of Congress don't see why this kind of oversight as an essential part of their job. I'm glad that Feinstein is wise enough to do what the Constitution and common sense require.

We met with two of Senator Feinstein's field reps, Cameron Onumah and Jeanette Cheng. I've met with Cameron several times before, and we invited him to be a panelist  on an ICUJP Justice Luncheon focusing on torture since Senator Feinstein has been a vocal opponent of torture when she was on the Senate Intelligence Committee. Cameron is a person of  faith who is very articulate and bright. He did an excellent job as a panelist.

We told Cameron we'd like the Senator to speak out against increases in the Pentagon budget, and he agreed to conveyour request to Senator Feinstein. We presented him with material from FCNL explaining why military spending is bad for the economy, our national interests, and  for life on this planet. Each of us shared personal stories about why we felt it was important that our tax dollars go to human needs like education and health care rather than to war.

We told him how concerned we were about waste and fraud in the Pentagon budget, and urged the Senator to support a bill like the "Audit the Pentagon Act of 2017." This bill calls for no increases in military spending until the Pentagon is audited just like other branches of government. An internal audit by the Pentagon revealed at least 125 billion in waste and fraud over the past five years. A full audit would probably reveal much more. This bill has the support of progressives like Barbara Lee and fiscal conservatives like Grover Norquist.

We told Feinstein's aides we are  part of a nation-wide campaign to urge our Congress not to increase the military budget. Over 30 people visited Senator Feinstein's office in DC a week ago,  450 people took part in over 200 office visits and had face-to-face encounters with 55 elected officials. We have Advocacy Teams in 35 states, in red as well as blue districts, all urging our elected officials not to increase Pentagon spending.  Trillions have been spent on wars in Afghanistan, Iraq and the Middle East over the last decades and what do we have to show for our money? The biggest refugee crisis since WW II, millions dead and political chaos everywhere.

As our FCNL bumper sticker states so clearly and persuasively, WAR IS STILL NOT THE ANSWER.

Left to right: Sarah Eggers, Kit Bell, Arthur Kegerreis, Anthony Manousos, Edie Salisburgy, Jeanette Cheng, Bertha Downs, and Cameron Onumah


Over 30 Californians met with Senator Feinstein's aide in the Atrium of the Hart Senate Building.


Dear Mr. Manousos:

Thank you for contacting me regarding nuclear weapons.  I appreciate the time you took to write, and I welcome the opportunity to respond.  

I understand you are concerned that President Trump may order a preemptive nuclear strike.  You may be interested to know that I am a cosponsor of the “Restricting First Use of Nuclear Weapons Act of 2017” (S. 200), introduced by Senator Ed Markey (D-MA).  This bill would prohibit the President from ordering a preemptive nuclear strike without an explicit congressional authorization.  The bill is currently pending before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, of which I am not a member. 

I believe the United States should continue to take a leadership role in halting the proliferation of nuclear weapons and reducing our nuclear weapons stockpile.  That is why I strongly supported the new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty between the United States and Russia.  This treaty will reduce to historic lows the number of strategic nuclear weapons both countries can deploy.

As a senior member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, I have tried to bring fiscal discipline to nuclear weapons programs.  Rather than building new nuclear weapons, I believe we should extend the life of our existing arsenal, decommission those that are no longer necessary for deterrence, and upgrade the aging infrastructure necessary to keep these weapons safe and secure.

Unfortunately, it appears that President Trump does not share these views.  He has openly called for the United States to “greatly strengthen and expand its nuclear capability,” and in interviews he has advocated for a new nuclear arms race.  I believe this is a tremendously dangerous and irresponsible thing to do.  

On March 14, 2017, I joined 12 of my Senate colleagues in writing a letter to Secretary of Defense Mattis and Secretary of Energy Perry in opposition to a recent Defense Science Board report.  This report encouraged the Departments of Defense and Energy to build new, low-yield nuclear weapons and questioned their ability to maintain our nuclear warheads in the absence of testing.  We wholly rejected the idea of resuming nuclear testing and building new nuclear weapons.  You can view the text of the letter on my website at https://go.usa.gov/xX9tE.

Once again, thank you for writing. Should you have any other questions or comments, please call my Washington office at (202) 224-3841 or visit my website at feinstein.senate.gov.  You can also follow me online at YouTubeFacebook and Twitter, and you can sign up for my email newsletter at feinstein.senate.gov/newsletter.

Best regards.


Sincerely yours,


  Dianne Feinstein
         United States Senator

The 2016 Election, A Year Later: What have we learned, what do we do next as faith-based advocates for peace and justice?




After an inspiring week in Washington, DC, taking part in our annual Quakaer Lobby Day, I was looking forward to giving a presentation about it at the Friday Forum of Interfaith Communities United for Justice and Peace (icujp.org), my interfaith peace group. To my dismay, I learned that the church where we usually meet on Friday mornings was closed due to Veterans Day. We contacted the nearby Islamic Center of Southern California, one of our partner organizations, and they immediately offered us a meting space. I was thrilled to see a nice sized crowd of around 25 people gathered at the Islamic Center (a place I have visited many many times) to hear about the work of FCNL and how to become more effective advocates in the Trump era. Our Muslim hosts were extremely gracious.

Below is a slide presentation that I shared this morning, which I am happy to share with any other group interested in learning how to influence our elected officials. After my presentation, we had a rich discussion in which everyone took part:  Muslims, Catholics, Jews, Episcopalians, and people of conscience who faithfully attend our weekly gatherings. What a joy and blessing it is when people of diverse racial, ethnic and political backgrounds come together in a circle where everyone's voice is heard and respected!

I keenly felt the Holy Spirit at work during my entire presentation. It seemed providential that I was giving my talk at the Islamic Center since FNCL honored Keith Ellison, the first Muslim to be elected to the Senate, for his work on behalf of justice and peace. I know it meant a lot to our Muslim hosts that Quakers hold one of their beloved and respected leaders in such high regard. He told us a story about how Ellison was speaking at an LA event not long ago, and was heckled by a few who don't particularly like Muslims. Instead of ignoring them, as the event organizers wanted him to do, Ellison walked over to the hecklers and engaged them in dialogue. To me, this is a sign that he is a true peace maker. 

Since today is Veterans Day, I  felt led to hold in prayer veterans and soldiers currently serving our country, praying that they be treated with dignity and respect, and that wars be ended so that all our troops can come home. This prayer was well received since we had a few veterans in our midst, including a Muslim leader who was our host.

Members of ICUJP have been very involved in lobby visits, and so were many others present. It was gratifying to see many others sign up to take part in upcoming visits. I am hoping to expand our teams this year to include the entire LA area.

I wish that I could share all the many thoughtful comments made in the discussion after my presentation. Would that we had taped this very important session! 

Our concluding time of prayer felt very deep and spiritually centered as people lifted up people and concerns for us to hold in the Light. Rev Darrel Myers closed our meeting with a beautiful send-off prayer. 

Thank you, God, for this beautiful day in which we experienced what democracy looks and feels like. 













Our keynote speaker was Sister Simone Campbell, who spoke about how income inequality has grown exponentially since the Reagan tax cuts, and will grow even more if the Republican tax plan is passed.