A Charmed Life requires Miracles

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Anton and Erika Herovitsch during our reunion in Itter, Tirol in 2014

 

Sometimes you have to ask yourself. How exactly does the world work? It’s big and complex and humbling in its magnificence. But I’m not always sure how its supposed to work. Most of us probably feel this way sometimes, if not most times. Whenever I reflect on this, I remember the world works by virtue of the following:

  1. The presence of miracles in daily ordinary life, happening before our eyes often without us even noticing or paying close attention.
  2. The recognition that the world is actually small when we are connected with the people who inhabit it.
  3. The presence of the Divine in certain people on the planet who look out for us, guarding us against peril and pointing us to goodness and light.
  4. The presence and energy of love, given freely at times randomly, but reverently and purposefully to move the world toward magnificence.

At the end of the day, all we have is each other and our stories.  When I think back to a time in my life when chaos reigned, I now see my life as a story told in a different light.  It’s clear that things happen as they should and for good reason. Always. And when it’s not entirely certain this is the case, it’s because we don’t have the complete picture.

When I was a junior in high school, my parents were both highly invested in my success.  My mother, in particular, was really pushing me to excel in school. She installed corkboard on a wall in the kitchen, which she devoted to every report card and honor award my siblings and I received at school, so everyone who came over could see it in plain view.  These are my kids.  This is where their success begins.

She definitely had her sights on me, and wanted me to go to college.  So whenever I was approached by my guidance counselor about signing up for ROTC, my mother would call the school.  My son is not going to enlist, he’s going to college!  And when he talked about the finances of college, she continued to press me.  If you get the right grades, you will get into a great school, and somehow we will find a way.

That fall as I was completing my applications, our community announced plans to expand our Sister Cities exchange program in Tirol Austria.  The prior year, in 1976, our town celebrated the bi-centennial by hosting a group of Austrians to stay among local host families.  Our neighbor Mary Cote hosted one young couple, and when I went over to cut Mary’s grass that summer, she invited me over to meet them and practice my German.  Anton and Erika Herovitsch were a lovely couple, both educators.  Anton was a school administrator and Erika taught at the elementary school.  They were glad to know some Americans were actually learning German in school– in their travels, they often found themselves clarifying for Americans that Austrians didn’t speak English as their primary language, and didn’t have any kangaroos.  That was actually Australia.  Moments like this made clear the importance of increasing global awareness.  We can know each other and understand each other better for sure, making the world more habitable.

That fall, our community announced a program to select two students, a male and female, for a study abroad program in Tirol Austria. My mother encouraged me to apply (actually insisted when I really stop and think about it). She was at Hutzel Hospital in Detroit at the time, battling cancer.  She thought it would be a terrific experience for me, and would help my chances for college admission.  Secretly, she also knew deep down I needed some kind of larger experience to break me out of my introverted shell.

Sadly, my mother passed away that Christmas.  So when I learned in February that I was selected for the program, I was in a complete quandary.  Did I really want to leave my family at this time, and go abroad 7,000 miles away to be in a foreign country with no one I really knew? My father never had any doubts.  He insisted that this was important, that it could be a critical addition to my college applications, and so I made arrangements to leave right after school ended.

As the time for my trip approached, I kept inquiring about my host family. This was in the days long before the Internet and Skype and I wanted simply to write them a letter and introduce myself.  But nothing. I was told details were forthcoming.  The week before our trip, Manfred Heuser, my high school German teacher and the director of the exchange program, called my father to tell him the family that intended to host me had decided to back out.  Manfred went on to say, he didn’t think this was a problem, and he would find another family once we were touring with our group in Austria.

As a 17 year old, my doubts were building.  I wasn’t sure this was the adventure I had signed up for! My father prodded me to stay the course, and decided to visit me in Austria in late summer to check on me.  That was a pretty big deal considering I had 4 other siblings at home. Knowing this, I decided to press ahead.

The prospect of finding a host family proved difficult in the three weeks we were touring Austria and Western Germany.  On the night before our tour group was returning to America, Manfred approached me with a plan.  “I know this isn’t what we intended, but we are pretty confident we can line up a host family by the time school begins in 3 months.  In the meantime, we can arrange for you to stay in a Youth Hostel for the rest of the summer. ”

I had, however, reached my 17 year old limit.  This didn’t feel like what I had signed up for. I wasn’t sure about staying in a youth hostel alone with a two year command of German, and no one I knew.  I went back to him the next day, and asked him if I could return with the touring group instead.  I was pretty sure my adventure abroad was over.

Manfred was clearly disappointed but understood.  The next evening he took our touring group on its last excursion at Gasthof Roessl in the nearby town of Itter.  As we were sitting down for dinner, a couple approached our table: “Ronnie Aus Amerika!  Gruess Gott!”

How was it even possible that 7,000 miles from home I would run into someone who actually knew me??!  It was Anton and Erika Herovitsch, our Sister city visitors from the previous year!  Manfred approached them about our touring group, and by the end of the evening came to me with a new development.  Anton and Erika had agreed to serve as my host family. Gottseidank!

I would like to say this was a storybook ending– and it is– but it’s really a story that continues to unfold.  Not surprisingly, I had the adventure of a lifetime with the Herovitsch family that year.  Their three children– Marcus, Danielle and Christopher (“Stoffi”) became constant companions at school, and it was as if I had been adopted into an entirely new family half way across the world. Erika planned our weekends with hiking trips and excursions to all the surrounding towns in Tirol. Serene and idyllic towns like Kufstein, Woergl, Brixental, Kitzbuhel and St. Johann.

I would also like to say that we kept up with each other perfectly in the 35 years that have since past, and in many ways we have, but life happens.  Marcus came to spend the following summer with my family in Michigan.  My father bought a motorhome and we travelled to California and Mexico with Marcus, a companion student from Austria, my siblings, my grandma Vicki and our terrier Popeye.  Yes, Marcus had an exciting but entirely different adventure in the states, barreling across America camping out with 8 other people and a dog.  And yes, in many ways his adventure with my family does bear striking similarities to the trip chronicled in Chevy Chase’s Family Vacation movie!  But that’s another story!

Danielle visited us in America on two occasions, and was on hand for our wedding in 1986 in Ohio.  At other times, our friendship has gone temporarily dormant owing simply to the sheer reality of raising our families and living different lives far apart.  What I can’t really explain is how it came to pass that I never made it back to Austria in all our years of marriage and travel? This is a huge question given my extraordinary passion for Austria, its culture and my charmed view of life there from my extraordinary time with the Herovitsch’s.  I guess there is only one answer.  Life happens.  After Kay and I married, we travelled on to see other places, other parts of the world.  But Facebook re-connected all of us again in 2007, and we began planning a reunion.

In 2014, 37 years after my magical year with the Herovitsch Family, Kay and I returned to Itter.  While I diligently practiced my German in the weeks leading up to the trip, one linguistic anxiety remained.  How do I express gratitude in a language over which I only have partial command?  How do I express to Anton and Erika how they literally changed my life?  How do I convey to them what it meant to me that they took me into their home that summer and made me a part of their family?  How do I share with Anton and Erika all that happened in the almost 40 years since we had seen each other? And how do I explain that in many ways, I don’t believe our friendship is a coincidence, but part of a larger more providential plan? How did I find Erika in my life, months after my mother had passed?

Our reunion in Itter was unbelievable. I knew we were up for an incredible adventure when Anton first invited us on Facebook: “We would like you and your family to return to Austria.  And when you come to Tirol, you must not reserve a hotel.  We have your old bedroom waiting for you!”

Everyone of the Herovitsch children, and many of their children came in for our reunion.  Erika cooked, remembering my favorite foods as if she had prepared them for me the previous Sunday.

Our language differences, and fluency point to something truly amazing.  In life and in love there is a language that surpasses our own understanding.  As we spend time together with Anton and Erika, the number of family connections unfolded.  Not only had my life with them in Tirol inspired me to pursue a career in education instead of the law. I had also married into a family of educators just like them. David, my father in law and Anton, both retired administrators, spend their time performing classical music. When I spoke with Anton our first day, I explained that I wasn’t sure I had the presence of mind at 17 to express the sheer love and gratitude I have for him and Erika and their family.  He replied:  “You know we knew that, even back then.  I remember one day, you had left your room a mess and Erika scolded you when you came home from school.  The next day you left gymnasium at recess and went to the store to pick her up some chocolates and write an apology. Do you remember this? We do, and we knew.”

Whenever I think of Anton, I think Captain Von Trapp in the Sound of Music– extremely accomplished, a renaissance man of the arts and music, at times reserved and quite serious, ever punctual, but with an abiding integrity and extraordinary love of family.  We made a pact that fall in Tirol in 2014, and vowed we wouldn’t let more that 2 or 3 years go by without seeing each other again on one continent or the other.  With our two families and extended family on both continents, we have ample opportunities to connect again and more often.

We are keeping this promise.  Chris and his wife Hazel visited America last fall and we enjoyed another amazing Herovitsch reunion in Boston. Another story for another time. This week Kay and I are returning to Europe, first to spend a week in England with Chris and Hazel and their family, and then another week with Anton and Erika, and Marcus and Danielle and their families.

When I think about how it came to pass that I would meet this family, at such an unusual time in my life, across the world, and kindle a lifelong friendship, it is humbling.  Our friendship is a reminder that the world is both vast and small, and smaller still when we connect with each other.  When I shared with Erika that I was at a loss to explain my absence from Austria for over 35 years, she understood as only an extraordinary mother can.  She said to me, “When we were raising our children we recognized Itter was a small place.  There are only 1,500 people in this town. And so we went out into the world, and travelled, and encouraged our children to do the same.  In doing so, Christopher went off to England to study and found a wife and ultimately moved there with his own family.  Marcus and Danielle and their families have had these experiences as well. But we remind them, this is always the place to which you return.  Itter is your home, and you always come back home.  We knew this was true for you too, Ronnie.  We always knew you would find your way back here.”

I left that day, promising to return soon.  I live the most blessed life because today, we are returning home again.

Servus!

 

 t

Better sorry than safe

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It’s interesting to read about whether Detroit’s recovery will be mired in the racial morass of gentrification. As Detroit continues its emergence from bankruptcy, a number of red flags are up. Is the residential recovery limited to the “core” — Detroit’s midtown and downtown areas? Will the neighborhoods ever come back? And will a sustained recovery serve all Detroiters, or only a select few?

As we approach our 4th year back in Detroit, I think these questions are legit, even when they’re directed at us. After all we are white and we are not poor. At times, this makes us the source of some suspicion. I get that.

Years ago, Detroit’s economic growth was carried on the backs of various Eastern European descendants mixed with African Americans migrating from the deep south.  Nowadays, we need to be open to new strains of immigrant migration if we are expecting our population and economic fortunes to rise.

When Kay and I first moved to Detroit after 25 years in Ann Arbor, we did so without any grand ambitions. We just wanted to simplify our lives. Although we can’t necessarily say we downsized (our pre-war condo is physically as big as our home), we did get rid of half of our “stuff,” the accumulations that come with 25 years of raising kids. It was more about getting out of yard and home maintenance, and the complications that come with midlife. But now it’s so much more than that.

It’s become an opportunity for us to re-energize our lives as a couple now that our boys are independent and living successfully on their own.

Living in Detroit has also become a matter of choice, and becoming part of a larger narrative about our city. After all, five years ago it was a bit more surprising that middle aged white people would choose to move back to Detroit. At the same time many African Americans without means feel they have no choice but to stay. We’ve developed our own gauge for this– it’s often measured in the number of times we see the word “aghast” flashing on the foreheads of folks as we tell them where we live now.

Once having moved here, we’ve found it easy to plug into the rich and diverse mix of urban life downtown. Every day we are reminded of how lucky we are, and every day we meet interesting new characters gritting it out in the city with pride, resolve and determination. It gets tiring at times to drive everywhere because public transportation is spotty at best. And in driving everywhere it’s sometimes difficult to stomach the sheer mass of blight down major thoroughfares like Gratiot, Michigan Avenue and Woodward. We’ll begin to know Detroit’s comeback is real this time when Woodward Avenue sports more than liquor stores, wig shops and the offices of bail bondsmen. And when more of the neighborhood parks and libraries are bustling with activity again.

Often, when someone asks us about living in the city, their first question is “Do you feel safe?”

The truth is– no it’s not safe! Public safety remains a huge issue. A few months ago, a young man was shot in broad daylight right down the street from us, and the only strange comfort lies in the fact that it appears to have been a targeted hit on a convicted drug dealer heading off to prison the next day. Scant comfort that none of us needed to have been worried on this particular occasion. Then there are the countless other weird, and depraved murders and mishaps that regularly make the headlines in Detroit.

But when are we supposed to play it safe? Detroit wasn’t safe back in 1967 when the riots erupted (or in 1943 before that). I remember as a kid living under the anxiety of nightly curfews, and the arrival of the National Guard on the streets. It wasn’t safe in 1991 when a distraught juvenile dropout walked into my grandmother’s bedroom and strangled her with her stockings. It was years before I could stomach the thought of visiting Detroit again, much less living here again. Clearly, larger forces have conspired to bring us back to the city of my youth.

We are back in Detroit for a reason.

And even though at times we wonder what that reason might be, we are getting a solid idea it has to do with that midlife yearning to be part of something greater than oneself, and to start giving back in greater measure.  When we first started our married life together in New York City, I remember walking down Fifth Avenue, and seeing all the wealth and abundance, and feeling this anxious need.  Now, I can’t look anywhere among my current surroundings without seeing a profound need, and I feel useful and alive.  Able to help in some small way.  This happens every day, and it’s profoundly energizing.

Still, we know full well Detroit won’t be safe for sometime to come. We have to start by getting comfortable with the idea that if we don’t start helping those who need a hand up, our safety will continue to evade us. Generations of young people– African American, Muslim, Hispanic, foreign born, transgender, urban, and etc. will continue to become radicalized not because of some purported, distorted religious ideology, but rather because they don’t see a way forward. It would be wrong to suggest we live in the middle of a war zone, despite telltale signs that make it suspiciously similar in appearance. After all, many of the disenfranchised appear ready to take up arms.  When people don’t see options and opportunity it’s easier for them to sign up for the revolution. Safety doesn’t lie in the suburbs either, as recent events across the country suggest. Cinemas, schools and public places are often destinations for the unhinged and unstable to unload.  This means that the age-old logic in the region that we could just ignore Detroit and it would go away is fallacious.  Public safety, and economic development go hand in hand. If we’ve learned nothing after numerous economic false starts, it is that you can’t have one without the other.

We have to get creative solving some of our city’s more intractable problems like multi-generational poverty, and under education in a city that has so poorly served students for so long we’ve induced an epidemic of underemployment and under achievement.  Right now, if you are male between the ages of 14 and 17 living in our neighborhood, you stand a 1 in 4 chance of getting your high school diploma.  Your odds increase by 2 to 3 times if you are a class A felon, convicted of murder or sexual assault.  That’s because our educational interventions for adjudicated youth are more effective than many of those available at our public schools right now.  This is a sad fact that should be mobilizing us all.

Better to be sorry about the fact that we’ve made it easier in recent decades for the haves to have more, and the have nots to have no chance at all. Somehow the five digit code representing our zip code says more today about the chances for a decent education than anything else.

The alternative doesn’t have to mean a hand out, nor the massive public assistance required to create some imagined great society. But we do need to come up with a blueprint for a good enough society where none of us would be embarrassed to show our faces and everyone would have a fair shot at a decent life.

Ultimately, this means bringing all the right players together in a room and dealing cards from the top of the deck, ones that haven’t already been marked. Isn’t it about time, after all?

Far better sorry than safe. Safe is vastly over-rated.

 

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Gerry’s recipe for Caramel Corn

Gerry Stefanski passed away on this day 39 years ago after a five year battle with cancer. She was 40 at the time.

Gerry was the ultimate mom. She dreaded anyone addressing her by her full name, Geraldine, after Flip Wilson created his own vivid female persona with that name, and made her a household character. In the days before it was fashionable, Gerry was the consummate DIYer. She made all of her own clothes and most of my sisters. She knitted, she sewed up a storm, she crocheted. She cooked and baked, she canned. She made strawberry jam every June and in the late summer she canned tomatoes and pickles and chow chow. We trekked off with her in our station wagon to the Eastern Market on Saturdays in the summer to haul back home bushels of tomatoes, cucumbers and peppers. She made and froze oodles of pierogi, mostly prune and potato, and she baked. The deep freeze in our basement housed a six month supply of pierogi, stews, stuffed cabbage, and casseroles after she passed.

But man, could Gerry bake! These current baking show competitions have nothing on her!

She made kruschkiki, light as angel wings are supposed to be, dusted delicately after frying with confectioners sugar. At Christmas time her preparations began in earnest around thanksgiving. She made loaves and loaves of babka, enough for all our teachers, and then thumb print cookies and kolachy, kiflica and fudge. She stored all of these on the stairway leading to the upstairs apartment at our house on Tappan Street. They were all carefully wrapped to ensure that she could detect even the slight hint of tampering.

Then there was her Vietnam Caramel Corn. Her caramel corn was in a category all its own. She got the recipe from our neighbor across the street when her son Tommie shipped out one spring. It was called Vietnam Caramel Corn because you could bake it and extend its shelf life long enough to ship it to the boys overseas.

Gerry’s cooking and baking displayed such command that when she first became ill it wasn’t apparent to us kids she was preparing us, not only teaching us how to cook and bake, but training us for life without her in the kitchen. Soon enough, we were prepared to make everything ourselves. That’s not to suggest it was ever the same.

Such trust and confidence she had in me! thinking back to how she allowed me to stir hot caramel by myself, no more than 10 years old at the time! and pour it over the popcorn after it was done. Keeping it stirred but not over stirred so it never burned, and there was never a burn on my hands in all those first attempts.

That’s the thing we have with Gerry’s recipes. They offer a blueprint, a way forward, a way to remember, a way back. How can you be sad when you’re eating Gerry’s fresh homemade caramel corn? All these years later, I still remember the time she sent off a batch to the Detroit News. She made it in the shape of a wreath for the holidays and adorned it with cherries. She received a call from a reporter a few days later, and was so excited to learn she had won the newspaper’s annual recipe contest. They were going to publish her recipe and her story AND send her a check in the mail for $5. She was thrilled as we ran around the house proclaiming she was now famous, our very own celebrity.

Years later, Gerry’s recipe for caramel corn has taken on mythic proportions in our family. It’s the stuff we make when we get the cousins together in Kentucky, or need a treat at work, or something for teachers at the holiday season. Last year when we hosted our first party after moving back to Detroit, I made a double batch.

On this day, Gerry’s recipe for Vietnam Caramel Corn is but one sure sign of her enduring celebrity.

Je Suis Paris!

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My prayer for those responsible for evil in Paris

Evil by its nature is inexplicable. But it is embedded deep in our DNA that we must find answers when violence or tragedy strikes. This is in our basic nature, so we simply must stiffen our resolve to aggressively resist the rush to judgment.

As we look to the recent coordinated acts of terror in Paris, let’s be clear Muslims did not do this. People professing a dangerous and false fealty to Islam did. This is an important and critical distinction. Faith in God and a higher power can only be validated by love, respect for life and equality. True Islam, as with true Christianity and Judaism all proclaim these values as a core tenet of true faith.

The heinous crimes against Parisians were committed against all people of faith, of all of us who yearn for a civil society. And just as we liberated Paris what seems like eons ago in World War II, we must return in a strong stand of solidarity toward Paris and all those who adore freedom, practice love and desire peace.

What happened to innocents aboard is deplorable. Let’s stand in unity to bring those responsible to justice. Let’s stand in solidarity as we showcase the best in our arsenal of blood-steeled values. It shouldn’t be an eye for an eye– that is not true justice. Only the light vanquishes darkness. Only love extinguishes hate. Only mercy exalts justice.

The toughest truth about tragedy is the recognition that mercy is honorable, not retribution.

It is tough not to want to hurt those responsible. But we are tougher. And we will prevail when we stand in solidarity on this. Yes, bring them to justice, sequester them from those who are free among us, but display God’s infinite mercy.

Leave behind talk about how this confirms the need to be more militarily involved abroad or buttoned up at our borders. Leave the final judgment to God, and bring resolve to our efforts to restore peace.

Je suis Paris!
Amen.