Let’s keep America exceptional

I want to take a moment to share why I’m proud to be an American.

A lot of other countries have made a point of priding themselves on their purity. They have draconian restrictions on who can be a citizen, like Japan. Countries like Iceland actually restrict the names you can give your children to a list of preapproved ethnic names. France even has an official body charged with maintaining the purity of the French language and keeping out foreign elements.

In America, it’s a point of pride how diverse we are. Our national motto is “E pluribus unum,” Latin for “Out of many, one.” We talk about our country as a great American melting pot, and we boast about how many nations our ancestors came from.

We talk about American exceptionalism, and the truth is, this diversity is what makes us exceptional. In America I can attend college with classmates who born in Egypt, in Pakistan and India. It’s that I can work next to a man from Ghana and that being no more unusual than the man on my other side being from Washington, D.C.

We’re exceptional because we’re a mix of religions. My daughters have played with classmates who were Hindu. I’ve celebrated Passover with Jewish friends and broken the fast during Ramadan at the local mosque. Our differences, joined together, are what makes us strong as a nation. It’s like alloys: if you mix different metals together, you find that they’re stronger together than they are alone.

America is a place where I can commiserate with a Muslim man because his daughters don’t know who sings “Let It Be.”

America is a place where I can walk down the main drag in my city and have my pick of Mexican,, Lebanese, Ethiopian, Italian, Chinese and Greek dinners, or just grab a burger and some fries.

America is a place where I can connect with people from all over the world in their native languages, and then join them in watching fireworks on the Fourth of July.

America is what President Reagan called a brightly shining city on a hill, a place that serves as a beacon of hope to the rest of the world. It’s in the fabric of our country to welcome refugees and immigrants.

This isn’t a new or progressive view of America. This is what we have always aspired to be. From the beginning we’ve been a place of many faiths. The story of Christianity in the United States goes back to our very beginnings. So does the story of Judaism. So does the story of Islam

Peter Salem, for instance, fought for our independence at Bunker Hill. Others Muslims who joined the Revolutionary cause include Yusuf Ben Ali, who fought in South Carolina; Bampett Muhamed in Virginia, and Francis and Joseph Saba.

Beware of those who would tell you that America is best served by turning away immigrants from another country or a particular religion, or who try to portray them as a threat to our country. Such people are lying about who we are, and they’re trying to take America not back to its roots but in a very new and illiberal direction, one that betrays our values and all that makes us proud of this great land.

American is an exceptional place in this world. Let’s keep it that way.


Copyright © 2018 by David Learn. Used with permission.

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An unexpected phone call

I got a call earlier today from my friend Tom. We caught up, talked about the fiasco the president has been making of immigration and human rights lately, and since he’s been under the weather lately, I asked him how he’s been sleeping.

“It’s been better,” he admitted, then he added. “My grandmother called last night.”


“Yeah,” he said. “She said she’s looking forward to seeing me next weekend.”

“I didn’t know you and Anna were planning a trip,” I said.

“We’re not,” Tom said, and I could hear his voice start to shake. “Dave, my grandmother died twenty-three years ago.”

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The monster of Passion Puddle

We live by a Rutgers campus with a large open space that slopes down into an artificial pond that serves as a detention basin for stormwater run-off.

Artificial or not, it’s a scenic pond. Passion Puddle, as it’s known to the university community, is home to a number of carp, but also plays host to a flock of ducks, and provides water to a number of willows and other trees. A grated pipe lets the water pass under Lipman Drive, which runs in a loop around this open space, and down into a ravine before it tumbles into the Raritan River. I walk the dog past it almost every night during the summer, when the breeze carries away the heat of the day, and the water sparkles as it falls from the fountain and back to the surface of the pond.

Passion Puddle is a prominent feature of the local topography, so much that my girls have all asked at different points when they were young to go for walks there, to feed the ducks, or just to sit and watch them swim. Once we even saw a line of ducklings following their mother as she swam in the pond one June.

Naturally it’s figured in the girls’ imagination as well. When she was little our oldest daughter, fresh from watching “The Little Mermaid,” talked about the time she and her mother had become mermaids and swam around there. Years later, after seeing demonstrations of a submersible craft there one Ag Field Day, she made up stories to entertain her youngest sister about the little people who live in the submarine in the pond.

It was inevitable that Youngest became fascinated with Passion Puddle as well, and called on me to fill in the gaps. I don’t have much of an imagination, so I latched onto her older sister’s notions of a mermaid, and told her that Passion Puddle is home to a mermaid named Bathilda who is from out in the ocean somewhere but lives in the pond while she takes classes at Rutgers.

Thankfully Youngest didn’t ask what Bathilda is studying, but she did ask how the mermaid keeps in touch with her family. Turtle mail, I explained: A turtle picks up Bathilda’s mail and takes it down the ravine to the river, and then out to sea, before returning with letters and packages from home.

Like I said, not very imaginative, but it was good enough for her, and when she saw a turtle a few day later, that was all the confirmation she needed. Months later, she was still spinning her own tales about Bathilda.

A boy drowned in Passion Puddle about 10 years ago when he went swimming there to escape the June heat and got his feet stuck in the mud. Mindful of this, I told her that it’s never a good idea to visit the mermaid in the pond, and if she ever got the urge to drop in on Bathilda or if Bathilda asked her to, she should ignore it. Mermaids are like Jenny Greenteeth: Avoid them, they are not your friends.

It was a few nights ago that I was taking the dog around Lipman Drive before turning in for the night. I haven’t been sleeping well lately, for whatever reason, and I was exhausted. There was a nice breeze, though, and although the days hadn’t become especially warm yet, there was something soothing about the feeling of the breeze and the calm susurrus of the leaves almost had a lyrical quality to it. It was a peaceful night, the moon’s reflection was sailing across the pond, and the water from the fountain glittered like a thousand tiny jewels as it fell.

It was a perfect night to walk out onto the green, take a seat on one of the benches by the pond and enjoy the cool air for a while.

You know how some spring nights feel almost too beautiful for this world? This was one of them. There was nobody else around, just the insects in the trees making their music, and before long it seemed as though the night was singing to me, calling me forward, and telling me to sleep, to relax and let all my worries go.

It was my dog that ruined the moment.

One moment, everything was peaceful and at rest, and the next thing I knew, Loki was growling and snarling like a dog possessed. He pulled so hard that his leash slipped from my hand, and he lunged toward the water with a fury I have never seen before, and hope I never do again. At home and with the girls, he is as gentle as can be, but in that moment he was all teeth and snarls as he rushed at and wrestled with I don’t know what.

And then the moment passed. Something I could’t quite see slipped into the water and disappeared, and Loki returned to my side. He rubbed his head against my hip, and I scratched his ears. There were tears in my eyes as though I had just lost something beautiful, but at the same time I felt an indescribable debt of gratitude to him that I couldn’t explain.

We finished our walk and went home. Every night as we go past Passion Puddle, a part of me tells me to linger a little while and treasure the sight, but if I try, Loki blocks my way, and pulls his way down the street.

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The bogeyman under the bed

Tonight my daughter woke me, crying that someone was underneath her bed. I walked her back to her room and made a show of checking under her bed before tucking her in. “Who would be under your bed?” I chuckled softly and kissed her forehead.

“Tonton Macoute,” she sniffed.  Tonton Macoute — Uncle Gunnysack — is the Haitian bogeyman. He stuffs naughty children in his sack and takes them away to eat in the morning.

“Silly girl,” I said, “Tonton Macoute only goes after bad children. He’d never take you. You’re the best little girl in the world.”

“I know, daddy,” she whispered. “He said he’s waiting for you.”

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‘Macbeth’ at the haunted theatre

Several years ago, a theatre I’m aware of was preparing to stage a production of “Macbeth” in its black box, where the stage was in the middle of four sets of raised seats. It’s one of Shakespeare’s best-known shows, but many actors consider “Macbeth” to be cursed and won’t even say its name inside a theatre, if at all. Whether because of a curse, coincidence or lighting that matches its dark tone, the play has a reputation for on-set accidents and misfortune.

untitledThis particular production made a point of showcasing the darkness. After the opening announcements, for instance, the house lights dimmed and plunged the theater into darkness. There was silence just long enough for people to start to get a little nervous, when the first witch lit a flashlight under her chin and asked, “When shall we three meet again, in thunder, lightning or in rain?” followed by the second witch’s lines, and then the third’s, each lit in isolation by a flashlight they held.

All three were seated in the audience and apparently had been the entire time. They completed the entire first scene like this, walking counterclockwise in a circle around the center of the stage, lit only from beneath by the flashlights they were carried. It was spooky as hell.

I tell you this to give you a sense of how the director was presenting the show. The scenes with the witches as written are already enough to build suspense, and the director was ratcheting it up even more with lighting tricks like that.

Now there’s a scene in the play that came after the intermission, where Mackers, having ascended to the throne of Scotland, asks the witches to tell him what the future holds, and they give him a vision of Scottish kings to come. (Spoiler: None of them is a descendant of Mac himself.) The director had some crazy lighting effects in mind for this scene, to show the state of Mac’s mind, his violation of the natural order in seeking such knowledge, and the overall creepiness of the witches. So it came to Brian, the producer of the show, to make sure that the lighting was all set up.

Aside from any actors superstitions about the Scottish play, it’s also true that just about every theatre has a ghost story connected with it. Sometimes the ghost is said to have been an actor, director or producer associated with the the theatre in life, and sometimes it’s just a presence people claim to have felt. Maybe it’s said to do something like haunt the props loft and move things about, but really, theatre ghosts are like the plaque honoring the people who supported last year’s fund drive. You don’t notice them until someone tells you that they’re there, and then you lose interest and forget about them.

At this particular theatre, which I’m not going to identify by name out of respect for the people involved, the resident ghost was supposed to be one of its founders. People had “felt his friendly presence” or whatever the standard claptrap was, after he had died. When the theatre’s original building burned down and they took one of the foundation stones to their new location, the ghost supposedly had followed. They called him “Sam.”

So it was the day before tech Sunday, and in a scene that I am sure is familiar to anyone who has ever worked on the technical side of a show, Brian was working late at the theatre to finish setting everything up.

It was late, sometime after midnight, when he started hearing noises. The set designer had left two hours earlier, after she had finished prepping the few significant props that would be needed, such as the banquet table where Mac sees Banquo’s ghost; and nobody else was supposed to be there.

“Hello?” Brian called. “Is somebody there?”

There wasn’t any answer, so Brian kept on going about his work and getting the lights set. A few minutes later, he heard voices again — a child’s voice, specifically — and he heard someone running around.

Now it was late Saturday night, and the last thing Brian wanted to deal with was some idiot who thought it was OK to bring their child to a theatre and let them run around. The only thing he wanted less was to have to deal with that idiot and all the authorities who would come visit the theatre once that child got hurt. So especially when he heard a loud crash come from near the props table, he climbed down the ladder as quickly as he could and went to investigate.

The props table had been trashed. Everything — Duncan’s crown, the flashlights, a few swords, Banquo and Fleance’s fishing rods — had been thrown onto the floor. It didn’t look like anything was broken but now Brian was getting angry. Not only was this unsupervised child loose in the theater, he was acting the proverbial bull in a china shop and was going to cause major trouble. He saw the child run toward the lobby, and he took off after him.

It was a short chase, and when the child ducked into the concession stand, Brian was sure he had caught him.

He was wrong.

There was only one entrance to the concession stand and the child hadn’t run past him, but he wasn’t in there either — not under the counter, not in plain sight, and (obviously) not hiding in any of the cabinets either.

The coffee machine, though, that was there. Someone had left it on, it had overheated, and he could smell it starting to burn. Brian quickly turned it off and unplugged it, and then thought about what would have happened if he hadn’t come down the ladder and come out here. He had a terrible vision of the theater going up in flames for a second time, with him trapped inside, and he shuddered.

Feeling too relieved for words, he walked back into the black box. All the props were back on the props table, exactly where they belonged.

People have all sorts of explanations for what happened that night. Some say Brian smelled the coffee machine starting to burn and his subconscious mind conjured a child to draw him out to deal with it, some say it was the curse of the Scottish play nearly doing the theatre in (it ended up being a very successful production, actually, and made a lot of money), and of course a lot of people say Brian just made the whole thing up when someone asked why the coffee machine wasn’t working on Sunday.

If you ask Brian, though, he has a very simple answer. Sam had already lost his theatre to a fire once. He didn’t want to see it happen a second time.

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What it means to be a father

Being a dad means you’re there
… to hold them at night so mom can sleep.
… to change stinky diapers, kiss skinned knees, and sit awake alll night at the hospital.
… to see their dance recitals, listen to their concerts, and see them in their plays.
… to tell them the stories mom won’t.
… to encourage their independence.
… to listen to their dreams.
…. to hold their hands and say, “You can do this.”
… to let go when it’s time.
… to catch them when they fall.

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Death by milk

I never met my Uncle Blair.

glass of milkThe son of my grandfather with his first wife, my uncle died young, I believe at the age of 8 after drinking what today some health food enthusiasts celebrate as “raw milk.” He died a long time ago, probably close to 90 years, so I’m vague on the details. Apparently he got thirsty, and drank some milk. Unfortunately it had started to go bad. He developed a stomach ache, and he died.

Deaths like his nowadays are prevented easily through pasteurization, so it always astounds me when I hear people celebrate the benefits of raw milk and talk about pasteurization as though it’s a bad thing.

We live in a cynical age, one in which we prefer to trust our own judgment or the judgment of our peers over the wisdom of people who have studied issues and accumulated knowledge for years. Maybe it’s because we’re safely removed from the high infant mortality that everyone once took for granted, that we’ve started to complain how unnatural vaccines are. Maybe because pasteurization is so widespread, we’ve forgotten how quickly and how easily the bacteria naturally found in raw milk can kill.

That willful ignorance comes with a high cost. Just as unvaccinated children have been at the epicenter of fresh outbreaks of once-vanquished diseases like polio and measles, the decision to consume raw milk instead of its pasteurized cousin takes a toll on the public health.

The Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta, Ga., received 127 reports of disease outbreaks connected to raw milk from 1993-2012. These outbreaks included 1,909 illnesses and led to 144 hospitalizations. The record does not list how many deaths.

But really, should it need to? The science is clear. Don’t drink raw milk.

And get vaccinated.

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On the occasion of 20 years together

35432289_10214183968426517_4023947747156557824_n[1]So around this time 23 years ago, I called a certain college sophomore on the hallway phone and, when someone finally answered it and got the wrong person, and then after they figured out who I really wanted and got her, I asked that woman if she would like to go see a movie.

“I guess,” she said, little realizing how much courage it had taken me to call her and ask her out and how devastating that response nearly was.

About 18 months later, she made a presentation to the Biology Department at Lafayette College about her recent trip to Costa Rica. It came time for the Q&A, and I asked the question no one else had thought to.

“Will you marry me?” I asked, and the audience in the room froze.

“Sure,” she said. She glowed with the red of a thousand sunburns, and the room broke into chaos. (A year later, one of her castmates in “Othello” realized that that this was the woman whose engagement story she’d heard about, and asked to see the ring.)

Twenty years ago to this day, she said “I do” while the pastor who officiated the wedding, breathed a sigh of relief that his part in it was over.

Outside the thunder roared, the lightning crashed, and torrents of rain fell on Easton, Pa.It was, I am sure, a sign of God’s favor. Storms like that wash away the dirt and grime, and leave everything renewed with the freshness of spring.

It’s been a hell of a 20 years. Together we’ve grown our family by four children and parted with one of them. We’ve buried one dog and got another. We’ve seen friends move to other states, and discovered new ones as they’ve moved in. We’ve lost her mother, her two grandmothers and her mother’s boyfriend; and we’ve survived Christmas with family and without as well.

Together we’ve seen one daughter all the way through her first year of college,a second halfway through high school, and a third up through second grade. Niki has earned her master’s degree and I’ve started mine.

We’ve been to Mexico together, while she’s been to Africa without me and I’ve been to Haiti without her.

There are times she’s made me furious, and there are times she’s wanted to nail me to the wall.

Through it all, one thing has been constant: It’s always been “us.” There’s nothing life can throw at me that I can’t handle as long as I know she’s by my side. Even when the darkness closes in, I know she’s there.

What is a marriage anyway? It’s not a ceremony or a piece of paper. It’s a commitment that lasts through thick and thin, through riches and poverty, through good and bad and the simply horrible. It’s a scaffold of memories you build together upon that foundation of commitment. Some are silly but still meaningful, like knowing that the first to do every morning is to put shampoo on your brain. Others are glorious, like holding a child for the first time and realizing that this is something new you’ve started together, and you feel the heavenly weight of that commitment settling on your shoulders. It’s the way you still hold hands when you’re together, it’s the goofy smile no one else sees the way you do,it’s knowing that yup you screwed it up again but you’ve both learned to laugh at those screwups now and appreciate their earnestness rather than feel angry or embarrassed over them.

A marriage is what keeps the lonely wolves at bay. It lights a fire in the hearth, puts candles in the window on a wintry night, makes a hearty stew to share, and says “Welcome home.”

I can’t imagine the past 20 years without you; and I don’t ever want to imagine any of the next 20 without you either.

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‘Ware the minotaur in the school

4d6d474581724e17378731fd0a5cfd81e7b1c970_hq[1]Every day this school year as I have dropped Youngest off for school, I have called after her, “Watch out for the minotaur!”

She asked me once to stop. My reaction: But if what she forgets to watch out, and the minotaur gets her?

Still, as my oldest brother has suggested one day I will drop her off and as soon as she gets out, a minotaur will rush out of the building and attack the car.

After the minotaur crushes the car into a small cube, your daughter will look at the crushed metal and calmly say, “I told you to stop saying that. The minotaur is my friend.”

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The Battle of Bushy Run (and what came after)

You’ve probably heard me talk about the Shades of Death before.

The Shades of Death is the name melodramatically bestowed upon a large wooded area around Sulfur Creek in Level Green, Pa. Over the years housing development and other marks of progress have cut swaths out of the Shades, but the area is still imposing enough to young children that it’s kept its name, its reputation and its mystery.

It’s obvious why a deeply wooded area would be called the Shades. But why the Shades of Death?

There were all sorts of tales in the 1970s that explained why. There was a curve at the bottom of Saunders Station. The story I’d heard was that it was a dangerous curve known for deadly accidents. My oldest brother, Blair, said something once about Sulfur Creek flooding during a bad storm and a couple people drowning when their car stalled and washed off the road. One of his friends reportedly knew from talk around school that the mafia executed known informants in the Shades; and of course by middle school we’d all heard the stories about the satanic cult that met deep in the woods. Chip Boring, whose parents published the local paper, claimed to have photographed the coven site, only to find his negatives all ruined and marked with occult symbols when he developed the film. They’re all great stories, the sort of tall tale that’s scary to hear and fun to repeat when you’re in elementary school.

The real reason it was called the Shades of Death actually may have its roots in a battle seven miles away.

Counterattack[1]It’s probably true that wherever you live, you’re going to get a distorted view of how important your hometown is to history. If you grew up in Mount Airy, N.C., you may think that the world begins and ends with your town because that’s where Andy Griffith was born; just as an Indiana, Pa., native may be forgiven for being a little too proud of Jimmy Stewart.

For its part, Level Green was on the frontier during the French and Indian War. We got to hear all about how the French had built Fort Duquesne at the confluence of the three rivers, and how the British had captured it and renamed it Fort Pitt. More significantly, Level Green was seven miles away from the Bushy Run Battlefield, and at least twice during elementary school, we took field trips there for school. My Cub Scout troop visited it. The Boy Scout troop camped there. As late as eighth grade, Mr. Daily was telling students about the Battle of Bushy Run with an enthusiasm he had not shown for professional football since Superbowl XIV, when the Steelers claimed their fourth Superbowl win in just five years. My brother was duly impressed with these stories, and when he went away to school told anyone who would listen how close his childhood home had been to the Battle of Bushy Run, and as “anybody who would listen” started out at zero and dropped lower, he gradually accepted that he would not be invited to parties because of the association.

The truth is, the Battle of Bushy Run actually was a pivotal moment in the French and Indian War. Fought on Aug. 5 and 6, 1763, the battle was one of the most significant conflicts between the Indian nations of the Ohio Valley and western Pennsylvania and the white settlers. Under the command of Col. Henry Bouquet, the British soldiers at Bushy Run turned back a coalition of Indian forces and even pushed them back so that the English were able to break a siege against Fort Pitt. This in turn led to a string of victories that culminated in the French decision to surrender to English control a sizable amount of territory east of the Mississippi. When the Colonies won their independence from England several years later, this territory went with them, and soon was followed by the remaining French territory when Napoleon, still stung from the losses of the 1802 Haitian Revolution, sold the Louisiana Purchase to ambassadors from the Jefferson administration. It’s no exaggeration to say that had the Battle of Bushy Run gone differently, the United States would not be what it is today.

After the two days of battle, Bouquet reported he had lost 50 men, saw another 60 wounded, and was short on horses and water. Before the battle, they’d been marching nonstop for three days in the Pennsylvania summer, which is no small feat, even when you’re not wearing British army uniforms. Now that the battle was over, they still had to rescue Fort Pitt, which was some 26 miles away and still under siege as far as they knew. The dead were buried, wounded horses were slaughtered, and Bouquet set out with his men to bring relief to the fort.

At least some soldiers followed the fleeing Indians and harried them as they went, continuing to rack up the kills and reduce the numbers of the opposing braves to deal with. This included Indians who ran to ground through present-day Monroeville and (you guessed it) Level Green. Some of the fleeing Indian warriors tried to lose their followers by running through the creek to avoid leaving footprints or other signs of their passage.

It was no use. There are places along Sulfur Creek where the ground slopes so steeply that anyone on the high ground has a clear and undeniable advantage. A number of Indians died in the creek and under the trees, where their bodies were left. That as much as anything else helped to give the Shades of Death their name.

Now there is a buff of sorts on Saunders Station Road that looks down the hills toward Sulfur Creek. It’s set back in the woods a ways, out of view of the road, and it’s one of those places where teens will go to have clandestine parties away from the watchful eyes of parents.

Some years ago, a girl from my high school rode her bicycle there to meet with her boyfriend during the afternoon in early August. It being hot, when he didn’t show up, she eventually fell asleep.

She claims that she woke up to the sound of gunshots and people screaming, just as the sun was setting. When she looked around to see what was going on, she saw about six or seven men lying in the creek or on the ground nearby, dead or badly injured. There were other men walking among them, wearing some kind of uniform. One of them was carrying a long knife, and when he approached the men on the ground, if they were breathing, he would cut their throats.

It was disturbing stuff to watch. This girl — I don’t remember her name — screamed when she saw it. Every one of the uniformed men turned and looked up the hill to where she was sitting. The one with the knife met her eyes with his, and started running her way, knife drawn and ready.

She ran to her bicycle, got on and rode away as fast as she could. To my knowledge, she never went back to that spot for any reason.

And that, I think, is why we call it the Shades of Death.

Copyright © 2018 by David Learn. Used with permission.

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