Monthly Archives: February 2012

Losing a Friend I Never Knew

I’m not a journalist, though I may have been one in a previous life. Suffice to say that I am a news junkie. Following the news has always been a part of my consciousness. I grew up in a home where dinner time was coordinated with CBS Evening News. That is, we absolutely never ate while Walter came on – before or after Walter only. Walter Cronkite was like a member of the family, part jocular uncle, part international oracle. Whatever Walter said was the truth. He’d never try to trick us or sugarcoat anything. Walter was the shaft of light in the darkness, the guy who helped me through the assassination of JFK, the flight of Friendship Seven, the Six Day War, the debacle of Vietnam, the deaths of Bobby and Martin, and so much more. Walter will always be my journalist par excellence.
In pre-modern times people knew so little about the world in which they lived. Ignorance was the general state of humanity. The first newspaper appeared in 1665. Prior to that was lots of rumors, fears, and superstitions. Gaining insight into current events was like being given the gift of super powers! In fact, I feel that way in the 21st century. That I can talk about what’s happening in China, or Rwanda, or Israel, or Syria, and rely on the information I read or hear or see, is an enormous gift, an embarrassment of riches. This knowledge enables me to be a true citizen of the world. It reminds me of the gifts and responsibilities of my freedom. It also illuminates the truth that without a free press there is no true freedom.
To think of journalists not just as storytellers, but as agents of freedom, is not just an illusion. We know over the years the mighty few who believed themselves above the Law were taken down not by the Law at first, but rather by an inquisitive press. I know, there are lots of muckrakers who care about the byline and not the veracity of the story. The celebrity news industry, a 24/7 monster consumes more garbage than a pen of hungry goats. Then it pumps out foolish and brain numbing excrement about everyone from a prepubescent kid with an average voice who ends up a star for now, to weeping about a has-been singer known, let’s face it, more for her excesses than her talents, to the latest divorce of 2 narcissistic mega stars, and so on. All that isn’t journalism – it’s rather creepy entertainment. I’m talking about the real thing and the real practitioners. People like Anthony Shadid, who died yesterday.
Jill Abramson, the executive editor of the New York Times, wrote to the newspaper’s staff Thursday evening in an e-mail. “Anthony died as he lived – determined to bear witness to the transformation sweeping the Middle East and to testify to the suffering of people caught between government oppression and opposition forces,” she wrote. Amen, Jill. If journalists shed light in dark places, then Shadid used a spotlight. As I said last week, “A hero is a person who does something above and beyond the call of duty. A hero is a person who stands up and demands that justice be served, even in the face of daunting odds.” Shadid was truly a hero, risking his life all over the world to give us a clearer story, and a shot at the truth.
Of course, the side story for this sad loss is that my hero died on the Turkey – Syria border, not by bullets or mines or an IED. Shadid, an asthmatic, apparently died due to his asthma brought on by an allergy to horses that were being used to help him sneak in and out of Syria. Oy, it breaks my heart. The bravest men and women are as vulnerable as we are, sitting at home in our sweats and reading articles by giants like Anthony Shadid. We’re all fragile creatures, prone to various ailments and aches and pains. No one is immune from tsuris. Our condolences go to his wife and children and family.
I’m going to miss Shadid and his insights into the Middle East. I’ve lost a set of trustworthy eyes in a very complicated part of the world. Shadid was one of my most important go-to guys for the real truth of the Arab Spring. His writing was not only incisive, it was from the heart. One could always identify an Anthony Shadid piece. It always evidenced his singular combination of authority, acumen and style as well as reflecting the humanity of those whom he was covering. Always. His obituary gives a deeper sense of his talent and heart.
We need journalists – heroes – like Anthony Shadid. We need men and women who dare to follow the truth and then expose it, even when it is at great personal risk. May his soul rest in peace. May his work inspire all of us to reach out of our comfort zones to shed the light of truth and peace.
Shabbat Shalom

Who’s Your Hero?

How do you define the word, hero? It’s used all the time; so much so that it feels almost commonplace. And yet, by my definition, a hero is anything BUT quotidian. A hero is a person who does something above and beyond the call of duty. A hero is a person who stands up and demands that justice be served, even in the face of daunting odds. That would include the Chinese man who stood before a column of tanks near Tiananmen Square in 1989 [who by the way, has never been identified; in the press he is forever known as Tank man.]. It would include Jeffrey Olsen, a firefighter who desperately tries to save lives on 9/11, only to perish later that day. It would include Rosa Parks, who dared to sit down at the front of the bus, and not in the back. It would include Hiram Bingham IV, the U.S. diplomat credited with saving more than 2,000 Jews and other refugees in France from the invading Nazis [the U.S. Postal Service has just honored his memory with a US postage stamp].
Of course I could go on and on. My point: these are not your average people. They are extraordinary. That is why they are heroes. I want to clarify the importance of setting true heroes apart so that we might learn from them and be inspired to perform courageous acts. Not to be heroes – anyone who wants to be a hero is immediately disqualified from wearing the title. It’s all about stepping up, or to paraphrase a famous quote from Maimonides, “In a place where there is no man, be a man.”
I just added a hero to my list. Until this week I never knew his story. Roger Boisjoly (pronounced like the wine Beaujolais) was a booster rocket engineer at NASA contractor Morton Thiokol in Utah who worked on the Challenger Space Shuttle team. Up until this week, I had always thought that Morton Thiokol engineers knew that there were problems with the O rings but remained silent for fear that the flight of the Challenger would be delayed and that they would be criticized by NASA for not working efficiently. The results, of course, were disastrous. The Challenger exploded mid-air, killing the entire crew: Michael J. Smith, Dick Scobee, Ronald McNair, Ellison Onizuka, teacher Christa McAuliffe,Gregory Jarvis, and Jewish astronaut Judith Resnik.
Boisjoly in fact noticed that the elastic seals – the O rings – at the joints of the multi-stage booster rockets tended to stiffen and unseal in cold weather. He was concerned about launching a shuttle in January: even in Florida, where it can get actually get cold – well, coldish. So he sent an internal memo, bluntly writing, “The result could be a catastrophe of the highest order, loss of human life.”
Managers at NASA and colleagues at Morton Thiokol immediately sought to shut him up. They belittled him, saying he was Chicken Little. Some at NASA management pushed him to “prove” that the Shuttle would explode if it went off on January, as planned. Boisjoly, remembering that conversation, said that he had never, as an engineer, been asked to prove that something would NOT happen, only what MIGHT happen. He couldn’t prove that it would blow up, even though there was enough evidence to show sure signs of danger.
Undeterred, Boisjoly kept hounding Morton Thiokol management and NASA, demanding accountability. On the night of Jan. 27, 1986, with a forecast of record cold for Florida the morning of the launch, Mr. Boisjoly and four other Thiokol engineers used a teleconference with NASA to press the case for delaying the next day’s launching. At one point, Mr. Boisjoly said, he slapped down photos showing the damage cold temperatures had caused to an earlier shuttle. It had lifted off on a cold day, but not this cold.
“How the hell can you ignore this?” he demanded. At first this seemed persuasive, according to commission testimony. Makers of critical components had the power to postpone flights.
Four Thiokol vice presidents, all engineers themselves, went offline to huddle. They later said that they had worried they lacked conclusive data to stop a launching that had already been postponed twice. They thought the naysayers might be operating on gut reaction, not science.
Jerry Mason, Thiokol’s general manager, told his fellow executives to take off their engineering hats and put on management hats. They told NASA it was a go.
The next morning Mr. Boisjoly watched the launching. If there was going to be a problem, he thought it would come at liftoff. As the shuttle cleared the tower, his prayers seemed answered.
“Thirteen seconds later,” Mr. Boisjoly said, “we saw it blow up.”
Roger Boisjoly did all he could to delay the flight, but he could not cut through the hubris of NASA and Thiokol management. The explosion and the responses of NASA and Morton Thiokol truly traumatized him. He eventually left after suffering debilitating headaches, panic attacks, and the snubbing by certain folks at Thiokol who resented him for “selling them out.”
Boisjoly spent the rest of his life speaking at conferences all over the world about forensic engineering and about the responsibility of scientists to the people involved in the projects and not the managers who ran them. He once said to his wife that his mission in life was teaching young people the ethical decision-making they would be called upon to use.
Roger Boisjoly risked his reputation, his job security, and contested the status quo, to save lives. He stood up and demanded accountability from the people for whom he worked. People like Boisjoly set the bar higher for us all. Maybe that’s the ultimate mark of a hero: someone who reminds us of what it means to believe in others and then to stand up for them. A hero reminds us of who we have the power to become, namely a better human being.
Shabbat Shalom

Prayers and Players


I received this email rather late in the evening the other day.  I’m guessing you all got it, but just in case, I thought you might be interested.

Shabbat Shalom




Dear Hevreh,

I know this must be weird, an email from God… Let’s face it, this is so not my style.  Ever since the big miracle days I prefer signs and omens.  I go with the subtle approach, the corner of the eye kind of sign that makes you guys do double takes.  You know, those, “Hey did you see that?  Huh?  Did you?”  See and now I realize I used the word ‘guys’ as an all-inclusive noun.  Is the word ‘guys’ colloquial or do women hate it? I don’t really like words – they tend to cause more problems than they’re worth.  Language…

Anyway, let me share with you the reason for my writing.  This whole Super Bowl XLVI thing has Me a bit, well, I guess bewildered would be the right word.  What’s all this talk, what’re all of these words about the Super Bowl and praying? Cute Gisele Bundchen emailing friends to say a prayer for her equally cute husband Tom Brady is just the tip of the iceberg.

I’ve been mulling this over ever since all the hoopla about that kid Tim Tebow or Tivo or whatever his name is.  I mean, seriously, human beings, why are you bugging me about games?  Look, I know you like games.  You’ve always liked to play: feats of strength, wrestling, running in circles, throwing spears and javelins and discuses and balls and shot puts (you do love to throw), curling, broomball, Thunderdome, cricket (which I still don’t understand – and I’m God…), and so many more.  You seem to have so much fun with them, though the cruelty of some games is crazy.  Anyway, go in good health – gei gezunter heit.

But do you really think I have any interest in your games at all?  If I were a human, which I’m not, and I know that’s going to cause some problems with my Christian friends, but so be it, I’d be one of those folks going to the movies this Sunday night – even if I lived in Foxboro.  Games are all and only about you.  I’m honored when that big David Ortiz fellow points up to the Heavens when he crosses home plate (ok, I follow the game a little bit).  I think all that crossing some Catholic athletes do before swinging, catching, riding or punching someone is authentic and honorable, but utterly without the faintest connection to Me. 

If David Ortiz makes a homerun, don’t thank Me.  I had nothing to do with it.  If Tom Brady throws for 400 yards and 7 touchdowns on Sunday, I’ll be happy for him.  But it won’t be because his cute wife did a chainmail prayer circle.  Hand-eye coordination, amazing skill, is all you.  How does a quarterback throw a ball 25 yards and have it end up in the arms of a man running at top speed who’s not even looking for the ball?  Do you think I really understand that?  Do you think I gave Mozart his composing genius?  Do think I had anything to do with how Coltrane created sheets of sound from one horn?  Do think I endowed Stephen Hawking with his genius?  That’s not Me.  My genius – and here I’m not being very humble – my genius is that I made certain you are replicas of no one else. Steve Jobs, Albert Einstein, that Facebook kid, Sister Theresa, Billie Holiday, Marie Curie, etc., etc… You’re all unique treasures.  I spend no more time on the NFL than I do on the softball time from Cromwell, CT or the lizard bladder contest in Belize.  I love the hopelessly disabled man institutionalized in a small boarding facility with the same love I shower upon Heidi Klum AND Seal.

While I agree that there is a prayer for the Czar, there’s no prayer for winning a game – or losing one, for that matter.  So stop asking rabbis and ministers and priests and imams and sorcerers and Zen masters to pray for a win.  It’s not going to work.

Here’s what you can do.  Recite these words before the Super Bowl, and before the end of every day: Thank you for my life and my consciousness and my perception and the opportunity I have to live my life with joy and thanks for those around me who make my life complete.  Thank you for Tom Brady and his teammates.  Thanks for the cooks at Blue Ribbon Barbeque.  Thanks for the fire fighter who is prepared to save me and mine.  Thank you for the people who make this world crazy, magnificent, and confusing.  Thank you for inspiration to be my best self.

You’re welcome.






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