*** LIBRARY of CONGRESS Honoree ***
*** AWARD of EXCELLENCE - Deep River Books ***

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

The Coney Island Fortune Teller

For those growing up in New York City in the 1950's, Coney Island was a very special place. It was their Disney World before Disney World was a glint in Walt Disney's eye. Sometimes we need to creatively reflect on our lives before we can appreciate everything that we have experienced. It was on an end-of-school-year, Second Grade, class trip that provided the occassion for Al Masterson to make some sense of his life then and now, some 40 years later.

Excerpt #3 from "A TIME TO..."

Aaahh, Coney Island

It was strange now to Al that back then Spook-A-Rama was just an amusement ride, but now it had become a metaphor for life, or at least those times in his life when he crept along in the dark without a clue, twisting and turning from frightening experiences that inevitably popped up. Whenever one of life’s unpleasant surprises hit, Al always wished that he would have had a heads up, so that he could have been better prepared to deal with it. That way, he could have either closed his eyes just before the mummy appeared and pretended it wasn’t there or he could have been ready to look the mummy straight in the eyes and say “boo” first.

Perhaps that’s why Al fantasized now that he had walked into Madame Marie’s Fortune Telling Parlor instead of passing it by with his classmates as he did on that Coney Island visit. The questions he now had on his mind were those of a fifty-one-year-old man. He wondered how his life would have been different if he had known then the answers to those concerns that materialized later in his life.

Al imagined that he walked through a beaded door and into a small, dimly lit, shadowy room where an elderly gypsy woman sat alone on one of four, rickety wooden chairs that surrounded a scratched up, old wooden table. Several lit, white candles on the table gave a warm, mysterious glow to the woman’s weathered face. Their flames danced in the bowling ball-sized, clear glass ball that was perched on a stand to her right.

She was busy placing strange picture cards face up on the table from a deck in her hands. The Frank Sinatra song, “Young at Heart” played softly on a phonograph – “You can go to extremes with impossible schemes. You can laugh when your dreams fall apart at the seams.”

“Are you here to talk with Madame Marie?” she asked without looking up from her cards.

Al hesitated for a moment before replying, “Yes. Yes.”

The woman raised her head and said empathetically, “Of course you are. Madame Marie knows all. Don’t be afraid. I can see your future. You are so young, with so much life yet to live. For just one dollar, I will tell you what your life will be like.”

“What can you tell me?”

“I can tell you many things. What do you want to know? Madame Marie knows all.”

Before Al could answer, the Frank Sinatra record came to a premature, distorted end when the power went out. The dying turntable moaned, “And, if you should surrviivveee toooo.”

“What the hell?” blurted an annoyed Madame Marie.

“I got it. I got it,” trumpeted her husband from another room.

“You got what?” countered Madame Marie.

“A fuse. I got a fuse.”

“What the hell happened?”

“Don’t know. Just turned on the air conditioner, and kapooey.”

“Hey, I told you that thing was broken. Don’t mess with that now. I’ve got a client.”

“OK. OK.”

“Now, where were we?”

“Can you tell me if my loved ones will grow old? ... What my purpose in life is... if I’ll live my dreams ... what my biggest problems will be in life... and if I’ll answer them successfully?”

“Of course... of course... Madame Marie knows all. The answers to all your questions are right here in these cards and in my crystal ball. But are you sure you want to know the answers to these questions? What will you do? How will you feel, if what I tell you isn’t what you’d like to hear?”

“I’d rather know. I don’t like painful surprises,” Al said as he pulled from his pants pocket, a wadded up dollar bill and placed it on the table in front of Madame Marie while the Frank Sinatra record began playing again. “Fairy tales can come true, they can happen to you, if you’re young at heart.”

“I fixed it. The power is back on,” roared her husband proudly from the other room.

“Yeah. Yeah. And, don’t mess with that air conditioner again,” she said while turning off the record player.

When she sat back down, Madame Marie swiped the dollar bill off the table and stuffed it in her blouse with one hand, before grabbing the deck of cards in her other hand. She closed her eyes and shuffled the deck several times before placing it on the table in front of Al.

“Watch what I do,” she told Al as she cut the cards and placed the deck back in front of him. “OK. Now, you do it,” she said pointing to the deck.

Al cut the cards. Madame Marie then took the deck and turned up five cards side-by-side on the table. After studying them briefly, she looked at Al and shook hear head “No” slowly a few times before telling Al, “Not all your loved ones will live to an old age like your grandmother. But, she won’t grow much older herself. She’ll leave this world soon. It will be a natural passing and she will be at peace. You will miss her – her words of wisdom, of pride in you – her love that she expressed in so many ways. But part of her will live on in you for the rest of your life – the part that gives you a quiet confidence when things don’t go the way you would have liked them to. She’ll whisper that you can turn lemons into lemonade, and often you will.”

Al closed his eyes and reflected on this premonition.

“Not so fortunate will be a friend of yours. Tommy will go to jail for killing someone. It was an unfortunate accident, but you felt responsible and it will haunt you for the rest of your life. You’ll always wonder if you could have prevented it.”

“What can I do to prevent it?” Al inquired.

“Discourage him from joining a street gang,” Madame Marie advised.

“I will. Now that I know, I’ll discourage him. I won’t let him join,” Al said sincerely.

“Good. It will save a life, and keep Tommy from throwing his life away. It will also keep you from suffering a lot of pain.”

Madame Marie then replaced the five cards back in her deck and put the cards on the table off to the side. She reached for her crystal ball and slide it in front of her. After passing her fingers across its surface, the ball glowed from its core. She stared intently into the light, squinting as she said, “The cards can only say so much. My crystal ball will tell us the rest.”

“Crash!” “Screeeech!” “Damn!” came the disturbing sounds from a nearby room in the house.

“What?! What? What now?!” an angry Madame Marie yelled.

“I was changing the light bulb on the kitchen ceiling. The light fixture slipped out of my hands and kabang, all over the floor. It almost hit the cat,” her frustrated husband explained.

“No. Not now. Not now. Go outside,” Madame Marie implored.

“I’m cleaning this mess,” her spouse said apologetically.

“OK. Then go,” she said with disgust.

Madame Marie collected herself and refocused on the crystal ball that began glowing again. “You’ll spend most of your life searching for your purpose in the world. You’ll look for it in the people around you, in your work, in the things that give you pleasure. At times you’ll think you’ve found it, but then something will happen and you’ll be disappointed. You’ll feel like a leaf blowing in the wind, which will create lots of anxiety. This feeling will come and go as the years pass and as you find pieces of the jigsaw puzzle of your life that fit. One day you’ll wake up and conclude that your purpose in life is to complete the jigsaw puzzle.”

“I don’t understand,” Al told the fortune teller.

“Of course you don’t. How could you? You’re only eight years old,” she replied with a smirk.

“Can’t you tell me in another way that will help me understand?” Al asked innocently.

“How about this? A jigsaw puzzle has many pieces, just like your life. But they only create their picture when all the pieces are connected in the way they were made. And, the only way to put a jigsaw puzzle together is by trial and error. It is really a process of elimination to find out what works and what doesn’t. It will be the same thing with your life as you try to learn your purpose. Jigsaw puzzles can be very frustrating when you can’t easily find the next piece you need. The same thing will happen in your search. It takes time, but with persistence the jigsaw picture reveals itself. That’s the best I can do. Does that make sense?” Madame Marie asked with a hint of compassion.

“I don’t like the trial and error part,” Al replied with a pained expression.

“Ha, ha, haa. Yes, nobody does,” Madame Marie acknowledged. “Now let’s look at another question you want me to answer. You’ll have many dreams for your life as you grow older. You want to know about them, so I’ll tell you. Most of your early dreams will be about what you want to do in life and who you want to be like. For a while, you’ll want to be a professional baseball player because you’d get paid lots of money to play a game and you’d be famous. But you won’t want to be just any player. You’ll want to be the next Mickey Mantle and play for the Yankees. Ah, but that’s not to be. You’ll be a very good baseball player on your local teams, but you won’t play professionally. When that dream begins fading in high school, you’ll replace it with one about following in the footsteps of America’s astronauts who’ll walk on the moon. But, the closest you’ll get to the moon will be a visit to New York’s Planetarium. Then you’ll…”

“Wait! Wait! You’re telling me about dreams that don’t come true. Isn’t there something I could be doing now to make at least one of them come true?”

“Not unless your hand-eye coordination and your eyesight miraculously improve. You’ll need these gifts if you’re going to hit good pitching and to pass the eye exam for pilots.”

“If that’s the case, I won’t waste my time dreaming about these things.”

“OK. That’s your choice.”

“I don’t want to be a failure. Now that I know, I won’t dream the impossible.”

“OK. Now I see a dream that will come true. You’ll want to travel the world to visit interesting places and meet interesting people. And, you will. For two years, you’ll live in a land where the first humans walked on earth a couple million years ago… a land mentioned in the Bible. For many there, life will still be the same as it was over two thousand years ago. And, you’ll be there at a time of upheaval, when people question their government and their leaders. And, you’ll question things about your life then too.”

“Will it be a good experience?”

“For the most part... And, I see other good experiences. You’ll be happily married and have a loving family. You won’t be rich and famous, but you’ll have a variety of rewarding jobs that use your talents. And, while you’ll always wish that the jobs paid more and you won’t like all your co-workers, you’ll be happier than most.”

“What jobs will I have?”

“Well, you’re an adventurous spirit, curious, and a risk taker, so they’ll all reflect that. You’ll be a journalist and a corporate public relations counselor before becoming a risk manager.”

“That sounds interesting. So, will that be my last job... a risk manager?”

“Probably. A big cloud is blocking my view of your later years. I’m guessing it means that you won’t live long enough to retire. I’m sorry.”

“Am I dead? Ah, I mean, I hope you’re wrong,” Al said to Madame Marie, his imaginary fortune teller.

“I hope so too,” she replied. “But, I can say without question that your big problems will include failed school courses, lost friends, loves, jobs, money, self esteem, injustices of all kinds and the anxieties these experiences all bring. You won’t have the answers to all of them. In fact, at one particular time in your life, when the problems pile up, you’ll have no answers. That’s when you’ll turn your back on God because you’ll feel he turned his back on you. And, your life won’t be quite the same after that.”

“Do you smell something burning? Al asked.

“Burning? Oh, no! I forgot all about it!” Madame Marie shrieked as she ran into the other room.

“My bread! Will you just look at it?” she said rhetorically from the kitchen. “It’s ruined.”

With that, Al’s imagined fortune telling experience ended and the scenes from his life picked up at Coney Island with him and his classmates standing in front of a barker who was promoting “The world’s only three-ringed flea circus.”

Monday, June 8, 2009

9/11: Not Just An American Tragedy

Based on many news reports, observers would think that 9/11 was just an American tragedy. The truth is that the lives of millions of people around the world would never be the same again as a result of what happened that day. All our lives have become intertwined in many ways in today's fast-changing world.

Excerpt # 2 from "A TIME TO..."

One, Small World

While Al switched trains, half way around the world in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, it was early evening. Tenaye Tiruneh expressed her concern to her husband Tadesse via phone about their son Alemu. Tadesse listened to her carefully explain that Alemu, a 15-year-old high school student, had been arrested by Addis Ababa police. Tadesse was in a New York City taxi cab, on his way to a very important business meeting that would determine the fate of his dream to open a vocational school in Addis for poor, uneducated children living on the streets of that city.

The boys would be taught to make furniture for homes and businesses locally and abroad. Upon graduation, they would have good paying jobs waiting for them in Tadesse’s furniture factory. The girls would be taught the finer points of growing, roasting, blending and packaging gourmet coffees for export. While exporting world-class coffee beans has been going on in Ethiopia for decades, Tadesse’s dream was to sell the finished product, where most of the profits are made. Something a Peace Corps Volunteer teacher said to him 27 years ago stuck with him.

The teacher, a colleague at the high school where he taught wood working, had been fascinated after learning that the world’s first coffee beans were grown, roasted, and consumed in Ethiopia’s Kaffee province. He had told Tadesse in light of this fact that he was surprised “Ethiopian coffee” didn’t have the same associations around the world of say “Russian vodka” or “Swiss chocolate.”

“How could Ethiopia give the world this universal drink, including its name, yet not get the credit and profits others do?” the teacher wondered.

Since then, Tadesse often thought about that observation until he finally decided he’d do something to correct the injustice. He wanted the words “Ethiopian coffee” to roll off the tongues of consumers around the world whenever they talked about premium coffee. Armed with his successful furniture factory as collateral and his dreams, Tadesse came to New York to change some lives for the better in Addis Ababa.

As the taxi he was riding in darted from one lane to the next, stopping and starting to keep from bumping into the traffic all around him, Tadesse held his head in one hand and his cell phone in the other.

“Arrested!? Alemu!? Why? How?” he quizzed Tenaye.

Through her tears, Tenaye told Tadesse, “He was on his way home from school with a group of his friends. The police arrested them for vandalizing city property.”

“No! No! I don’t believe it! Alemu would never do such a thing!”

“It’s true. I talked to Alemu at the police station. He said they just drew pictures with colored chalk on the sidewalk, making fun of a rival group at their school. The school principal filed a complaint with the police because he thought they were making fun of him,” Tenaye explained.

“That’s crazy. Even if they were making fun of him, they didn’t break any law,” Tadesse barked.

“The police said there have been many incidents recently in the area where city property was destroyed and they see what Alemu and his friends did as the same thing.”

“It’s not the same thing. They can’t make up laws to suit themselves,” Tadesse countered.

As soon as he said this, he remembered a time and a place many years ago when Ethiopia’s Emperor, Haile Selassie, had just been dethroned and put under house arrest by the new ruling military party. Tadesse, like many in that country at the time, wondered what the change would mean to them. There was fear of the unknown mixed with a hope that life would get better for him, a poor country boy who was the first in his family to attend a university, and everybody else in the country – everybody that is, except the rich landlords and the few they favored.

His assertion to Tenaye that “They can’t make up laws to suit themselves” rang in his ears as he saw himself three decades ago standing in his 10th-grade class in Nekempte, Ethiopia, responding to a student’s question, “What will happen to the uneducated people in Ethiopia – those who don’t know about the laws of the new government – if they break a law?”

Tadesse’s answer - “I don’t know” – underscored the volatile, uncertain time politically. Everyone had to be careful about what they said and did. Later, Tadesse asked his Peace Corps teacher friend the same question, and he didn’t have an answer either. That helped dispel the myth among many Ethiopians that Americans knew everything. In spite of that revelation, or maybe because of it, their friendship grew. When the time came for the foriegngee to return home to the states, Tadesse called him "brother" and the Peace Corps Volunteer hugged Tadesse goodbye while wiping away a tear from his eye – knowing that this would probably be the last time they’d ever see each other. They exchanged letters for the next year, but time and political circumstances ended their long-distance friendship.

“Tenaye, listen to me. It will be OK,” Tadesse consoled. Tadesse, who earned a reputation in his community as a strong, intelligent, persuasive man, would clear his son tomorrow when he returned home. “I’ll meet with the police and Alemu’s principal. This is his first year at the school. He doesn’t know Alemu,” Tadesse said reassuringly.

“I shouldn’t have called before your meeting. Good luck. I love you,” Tenaye replied.

“It makes me more determined. If something like this can happen to our son, imagine what the poorest street kids have to deal with. I’ll call you tomorrow, before my plane takes off. Goodbye. I love you,” Tadesse said tenderly.

Just then, Tadesse’s taxi came to a screeching stop, hurling him into the security partition that separated him from the taxi driver. With his face just inches from the driver, Tadesse’s chauffeur turned his head until their eyes met. While the driver saw terror, Tadesse saw an amused, smiling face, as if they were in a bumper car at an amusement park. In an attempt to calm Tadesse and to blame the other driver for the near collision, the taxi driver began yelling and pointing his finger at the other driver.

Tadesse’s face suddenly lit up with a soothing grin because the taxi driver was cursing out the “crazy, donkey’s ass” driver in Amharic, Tadesse’s native language. All of a sudden, this strange, huge, intimidating city became less so. It also gave him renewed hope that his proposal would be approved. After all, if the daredevil taxi drivers of Addis could find work in New York City, then anything was possible.

“Wendeme’, Taynahstiling. Indemineh?” Tadesse greeted the driver in Amharic. Instantly, they began a conversation that lasted the entire trip to Tadesse’s meeting place. Tadesse looked forward to eating dinner that night at the Ethiopian restaurant the driver told him about.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Welcome to my "A TIME TO..." blog

I grew up in New York City and visited the top of the World Trade Center with my new bride in 1980. Something very powerful happened within me after I witnessed the Twin Towers collapsing on television as I worked in my Michigan office. The horror of such an unimaginable event raised so many questions about life in general, and my life in particular. They were primarily spiritual in nature and from them my first novel was born. The purpose of this blog is to provide readers with insights and commentary about "A TIME TO..." along with related excerpts. I hope you enjoy them.

Excerpt #1 From "A TIME TO..."

A Dream... A Cartoon... and God...

At St. Peter’s Catholic Church on the lower east side of Manhattan, in the shadows of the World Trade Center’s imposing twin towers, a NYC fire department chaplain contemplated the dream he had the night before. He struggled to find meaning in it since the situation he had found himself in was so out of character. When was the last time he cleaned his living quarters? He had a housekeeper for as long as he could remember. But there he was in his dream dusting furniture and vacuuming the dirt from the floors. The other strange thing about his dream was that he couldn’t get rid of the dust. In fact, the more he cleaned, the more dust would appear. Finally, it got so bad that he began choking on the dust and that’s when he woke up.As he sipped his coffee, a passage from the book of Genesis came to mind. “…For you are dirt, and to dirt you shall return.”

Maybe that was it, he thought to himself. The night before, he had discussed death at length with several firefighters at Ladder Company number six. It isn’t a subject the fire fighters spoke of often, even though they each knew friends who had lost their lives while battling fires. A couple of them almost died on the job. Frank was one of them.

“It happened so fast. One second there was a clear path to the door out, the next, nothing but flames between me and it,” Frank told Father Tom with horror in his voice. “I looked all over for another exit… other doors…. other windows. Flames and smoke were everywhere. We’re trained to deal with every situation, but for the life of me, nothing came to mind that would save me. My heart was racing. I was dripping sweat and thought I was about to die….”

“Oh, thank God you didn’t,” Father Tom interrupted. “How did you get out?”

”A strange thing happened. ‘God help me, God help me’ I whispered over, and over. Then all of a sudden, images came to mind of some cartoon I used to watch when I was a kid on Saturday mornings. The next thing I knew, I was running through the flames that blocked my way out, just like the character did in the cartoon. I don’t know how I got out without being burned.”

“That’s a good story. Do you mind if I use it in a homily some time?” asked Father Tom.

“Why? Don’t you think it’s weird?”

“Not at all. God works in mysterious ways.”

“I guess so. Sure, you can use it.”

“I’ve told you guys this before, but let me say it again,” Father Tom said with a lump in his throat. “You are my heroes. God has truly blessed you so that you can put your life on the line again and again for people you don’t even know – ‘For there is no greater love than to give one’s life for someone else.’”

“Father, can I ask you something?” whispered Steve, another firefighter.

“Certainly…anything,” Father Tom affirmed.

“Does God determine when we all die?” he asked as if he were a young child.

After a brief pause to collect his thoughts, Father Tom responded, “Let me first ask you this before I answer your question. Does God determine when we are born?”