Saturday, January 31, 2015

Movie Review: American Sniper Continues the Debate Regarding Art and Truth

First appeared on Blogcritics.




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Cooper's portrayal of Chris Kyle is Oscar worthy. 
When getting ready to see American Sniper, it could have been difficult for me if I had allowed all the buzz from pundits and critics (online and otherwise) who had already staked their claim regarding the film, the facts, and Chris Kyle (upon whose book the film is based). I consider myself open minded and went in determined to judge the film on its own merits. Unfortunately, many are not willing or able to do that.



Based on what I saw, director Clint Eastwood has crafted a rather painstakingly deep portrait of his interpretation of the character Chris Kyle (Bradley Cooper). This is where I feel people make their biggest mistake – thinking the person on screen is a second-by-second depiction of the man known as Chris Kyle in real life. A similar problem recently arose with the film Foxcatcher, where the line between art and reality is blurred by people seeing the film and real persons who may have been depicted in it.

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 Chris Kyle wrote a book about his real life
experience upon which the film is based.
 
Cooper is an actor playing a character in a fictional version of a true story. That is a qualifier in this and most films that are “based on a true story.” The problem with this is that many viewers immediately start thinking that this is a documentary when it is not. A documentary is a film version of what we like to call non-fiction in writing; however, we should not have any illusions that all documentaries are pure stories unaffected by scripting and editing. The same can be true with non-fiction, or as many writers like to call it these days, “creative” non-fiction. The devil is not only in the details but that creative aspect of the true story.

Getting back to American Sniper, we do not just have people getting upset because of the main character Chris Kyle; we also have those who object to director Eastwood and his film pedigree. Those who look at him and think “Dirty Harry” or “Make my day” or “Do you feel lucky, punk?” are also having issues with separating fact and fiction. The issue here is not that Eastwood directed the film or that Chris Kyle is the subject, but rather is the film any good?

I used to tell my students in literature courses that they can never mistake the “voice” or “point of view” in a story or the speaker of a poem to be the writer or poet. So when we were reading Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven,” for example, and my students would say something like “Poe said” or “Poe is doing” I would caution them and say, “No, the speaker of the poem is doing that.” Yes, it is a fine line and in people’s minds it gets muddled, but there is that factor to consider. Jake Barnes is not Ernest Hemingway in The Sun Also Rises, no matter how many people believe that he is (based what they know about the story of Hemingway’s life real exploits).

Eastwood is astute at capturing not just the battlefield but the more subtle moments in his version of Kyle’s life that bring home the message that his Kyle, as played by Cooper, is sometimes extremely upset about what he is doing, especially when a little boy and his mother come into the sights of his rifle scope. Cooper’s intensity as Kyle is amazingly realized – we see his angst over having to shoot the child running at soldiers with a weapon – and in the bigger picture we also observe the toll his four tours of duty in Iraq takes on him and his marriage.

This version of American Sniper, which is to say Eastwood's interpretation, gives us Kyle as a conflicted and flawed individual who loves his wife Taya (a terrific Sienna Miller) and children. We also get a back story regarding Kyle’s childhood, and we see him learning to shoot with his father and also protecting his little brother from a bully. We understand that Kyle has a temper but he also has love for his family, and as he grows he comes to better understand himself and his reaction to others.

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 Eastwood directing Cooper in American Sniper. 
Many critics and celebrities have weighed in with negative comments about the film (despite this it has been tops at the box office for the last two weeks), with Michael Moore and Seth Rogen getting the bulk of the recognition for their negative reactions to the film. Of course, everyone has a right to an opinion, but is that based on the film itself or is it because of the real Chris Kyle’s story or the fact that Mr. Eastwood directed the film?

Pablo Picasso famously once said that art is the lie that tells the truth. It is up to us as the viewers of that art – the painting in a museum, the film on screen, the music on our iPods – to discern whether or not the work speaks to us with veracity or rings false. That is why each person can look at a work like Picasso’s Guernica and see many different things. In the end the painting has (for most people) an inescapable anti-war message, but some may not see it that way.

In American Sniper we do not get Eastwood banging the drum of war – far from it. I know the film has been compared to Hurt Locker, and those who saw that film believed it was anti-war and many think American Sniper is pro-war, but it is not. Eastwood goes to great pains to depict the baggage that Kyle carries, the way his work affects his personal life, how Kyle’s friends are wounded or killed, and that the staggering cost of war never seems worth the price paid by those who do the fighting.

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The love story in the film helps to make
Kyle a deeper and richer character.
 
The best parts of the film for me are when Kyle comes home to Taya and then later to his children. We get to see his love for them, but his allegiance to the purpose of his mission is never far from his thoughts. This film does not promote war; rather, it rings the bell that tolls for all soldiers who live on borrowed time, even after they leave duty and come home. All is connected to the damage they experience that is physically and mentally debilitating, whether they come home physically wounded or not.

The debate will always rage on regarding films such as American Sniper. In my mind most so-called “war films” are anti-war by the very nature of what is depicted. Films as diverse as Full Metal Jacket, The Red Badge of Courage, and All Quiet on the Western Front tell the horror of war from different perspectives, but always send home the message that war is hell and that glory is more imagined rather than experienced.

American Sniper is a deftly crafted film that shows the journey of its protagonist during the difficult days of the Iraq War and on the home front where little is understood about what soldiers are going through over there. Miller's Taya Kyle is our qualifier, with her reactions to her husband’s ever changing disposition gauging what’s happening to him and their family. Miller does a fine job of bringing Taya along from a shot drinking girl at the bar to loving wife and mother. She emotionally rescues her husband more than once, and Miller’s performance grounds the film and makes the viewer empathetic to the true cost of war on loved ones who are always innocent and end up getting hurt.

The debate will no doubt never end regarding art and truth, with the line between fiction and reality tattered by those who cannot or will not allow one to exist distinctly divorced form the other. This may not have been the exact story of the real Chris Kyle as some have argued, but it is the tale of the Kyle that Eastwood presents. As it stands, the film is a powerful depiction of the cost of war and its effects on one man and his family.

Cooper’s nuanced and emotional portrayal of Chris Kyle rightly earned him a nomination for the Best Actor Oscar. Perhaps the only thing keeping him from winning it are those who don’t think that art is a lie telling the truth and rather see this film as an art that tells a false story. That’s not only an unfortunate attitude but it could rob Cooper of a much deserved Oscar that he should receive for his performance and not for portraying a version of Kyle that others cannot accept.


  Photo credits: ew.com, nypost.com, fatmovieguy.com, collider.com

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Deflate-Gate Debate Threatens to Overshadow Super Bowl

First appeared on Blogcritics.

deflate 4
Deflated footballs were supposedly used by the New
England Patriots in the AFC Championship game.
 
 By now the discussion about what is being called “Deflate-Gate” (the supposed deflation of footballs used by quarterback Tom Brady in the New England Patriots’ overwhelming victory over the Indianapolis Colts in the AFC Championship game in Foxboro, MA, last Sunday) has reached Bill Cosby scandal dimensions. Anakin Brady is being painted as a more than worthy student of Bill (Darth) Belichick, the Patriots head coach who long ago moved to the dark side with a vengeance.


Even good old Darth Vader would probably see his fellow Sith Lord Belichick as perverting the force, but heck anyone with a red light saber has to be considered part of the team, right? Belichick’s long history of questionable tactics is well known (National Football League fans well remember “Spygate”) and always keeps him under the microscope, but this situation seems to be blossoming into an even bigger storm from which Darth Bill may have a hard time extricating himself.
deflate 3
Darth Bill no doubt likes apprentice
Brady's full embrace of the dark side.

Darth Bill has already started the spin by claiming that in his entire career that he never discussed the inflation/deflation of footballs with any team employee, player, or even the guy scrubbing the toilet. If you believe this one, I have a nice rusty bridge over the East River I’d like to sell you. Darth Bill is one slick-willy, and his distancing himself from disciple Anakin Tom is like letting him fall into the lava on that hot planet of media scrutiny right before the Super Bowl. 

The fact the NFL players far and wide are having a hard time believing Brady’s story is not surprising. So when the three-time Super Bowl winning QB says, "I have no knowledge of anything. I was as surprised as anybody when I heard Monday morning that this happened," you have to wonder if this is the worst case of fibbing since Sgt. Schultz said, “I see nothing” on the old Hogan’s Heroes TV show.

To add to the absurdity of Deflate-gate, the NFL finally made a statement on Friday that was about illuminating as a nightlight bulb in a subway tunnel. After interviewing 40 people (why were Brady and Darth Bill not among them?) they said “the evidence thus far supports the conclusion that footballs that were under-inflated were used by the Patriots in the first half” and that they were properly inflated in the second half. This announcement sheds little light on why and how this happened, but considering that the score was 17-7 at the half, and that the Pats went on to a blow-out 45-7 win (scoring all those second half points with properly inflated balls), it seems like the NFL is pushing for a business as usual week before the big game.
Commissioner Roger (Nowhere to Be Found) Goodell apparently is too busy somewhere pretending to be an ostrich to even comment on the mess that is going viral and probably won’t go away before the coin toss to start the Super Bowl on February 1.

deflate 1
One question - shouldn't Gisele be
"Alice" in the center square?
 
For now we have what ABC News has jokingly called The Brady Crunch. The image alone brings back bad memories of Friday nights when I was a kid, but the more salient issue is that Brady’s peers and NFL coaches suspect him and believe that he has made a full turn to the dark side. As a New York Jets fan, I love seeing Brady and Darth Bill getting backed into a corner. Of course, when this happens they will no doubt pull their red light sabers from inside their dark robes and try to slay any padawans in the room foolish enough to question their tactics or ethics.

To continue the extended Star Wars metaphor, I hope the Seattle Seahawks will be as successful as Luke and his fellow Jedi in Return of the Jedi and kick Darths Brady and Belichick to the curb. I doubt we will see Brady lift old Bill over his head and toss him down an airshaft before the game, but it would be great to see the Pats get a drubbing. Nothing hurts old Darth Bill more than losing, and I bet much of America probably agrees with me and would like to see the crusty emperor dethroned.

As the Super Bowl approaches, we have to hope that the NFL has the balls secure to be certain nothing similar happens to them. Hopefully, someone will be checking every ball for proper pressure. You can count on everyone thinking about that more than anything – even what Katy Perry may be wearing for the halftime show.

Here’s hoping that the Seahawks win and that Darths Tom and Bill will go home as deflated as the balls they used back in Foxboro. May the force be with you, Seattle Seahawks!

  Photo credits: abcnews, edition.cnn.com, foxnews   

Monday, January 19, 2015

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. – Celebrate His Legacy By Following His Example

First appeared on Blogcritics.

king 2 This time every year we note a great American – Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. – and there are specials on TV, copious amounts of articles online and in print, and ceremonies marking his significant contribution to this country and the world. While all these things are wonderful, they are sort of like the true meaning of Christmas; we shouldn’t just be peaceful and generous one day a year but 365 days a year.

This is also true of Dr. King’s legacy – this is an everyday call to everyone to follow his lead. It’s not enough to celebrate what he stood for and then get up tomorrow and go about business as usual. Dr. King dedicated his life to not only promote peace and dignity for all people, but to celebrate service and adherence to one’s faith every day of the year.

One thing we should do is read or listen to his words. One of our good fortunes is to have an archive of his speeches on video, in recordings, and in print. We can only imagine what it must have been like to hear Abraham Lincoln’s oration, but Dr. King’s catalogue is at our disposal. This should be shared with our children and one another because it is some of the best writing and speaking of the 20th century – or any other century for that matter.

Dr. King was the leader of the Civil Rights movement from the 1950s until his death in 1968, but he was also a Baptist minister. His faith is apparent in his words for he invokes the right to dignity and freedom that all people inherently deserve as children of God. This motivated all of King’s work because he was not just a proponent for his people but all of God’s people.

Consider these words: “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.” This comes from a man who obviously had an intimate connection with his God, and in essence understood the basic message that “love” is the answer. We recall U2’s beautiful song “In the Name of Love” written about Dr. King, and the words of Jesus Christ: “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.” Dr. King dedicated his life to spreading love and was assassinated for his efforts.
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All these years later that shot that felled this great man has still failed to silence him. Besides his living legacy of words and a call to peaceful action, there are those of all faiths and races who have taken up the torch to continue his work. In many ways this is so similar to Jesus whose work was carried on by others after him. Both men loved others more than themselves, and in doing so spread an ideology so necessary and compelling that it will never be forgotten. Why Dr. King’s message is still so resonant is that it’s universal in nature. Men, women, and children will continue to learn from him as long as those torch bearers carry on with his work.

The idea is not to disparage others for what they are but recognize their essential human dignity. Dr. King understood that ignorance was less someone’s fault and more society’s responsibility. When he wrote his eloquent letter from the Birmingham jail he noted all the incongruous indignities black people suffered – and in doing so he highlighted an American travesty that had to be changed as soon as possible. This is why he refused to “wait” as white leaders were asking him to do.

In many ways we are still waiting for the peace and love that Dr. King fought and died for. Even with a black President of the United States, there are still those in America who fail to respect him and others who are different than they are. This is because racism – and this is the thing no one likes to talk about even in 2015 – is still imbued in our culture. We see this not only in America but around the world. People are fighting one another and imposing punishment on those who are not the same race, religion, and gender.

king 3This day we celebrate Dr. King must be spread forward to every day of the year, and in doing so we need to make a difference in small and big ways. We need to have a dialogue about racism – no matter how difficult that may be – for the sake of our children and our children’s children. Just as Dr. King said (in his famous “I Have a Dream” speech) that he wished for the day his children would be judged not by the color of their skin but the content of their character, we must strive for that world to be a reality. We can only do that by living life by a code that promotes unity and discards adversity. True peace will never be accomplished in this world without recognizing that love is the only weapon that will ever stop the evils of war and oppression.

Dr. King said, “Life's most persistent and urgent question is, 'What are you doing for others?'” As you go about this day and the days to come, ask yourself this question. If you don’t like the answer, perhaps you have some work to do. Judging by the events we see happening all over the world, it would seem we all have much work to do. Dr. King showed us all the way; now we have to be brave enough to follow him.

Photo credits: tavaana.org, bknation.org ,3chicspolitico.com

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Jets Win Super Bowl III - The Start of the Most Amazing Year in NYC Sports History

First appeared on Blogcritics.

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Joe Namath leads the Jets to a 16-7 victory over the Baltimore Colts in Super Bowl III. 
 It’s a long time ago now, in a galaxy that may not be that far away, but distant enough for many people who never lived through it. 1969 was a glorious year in New York sports – if you were a Jets, Mets, and Knicks fan. As a kid I couldn’t believe all this excitement was happening, and until this day there has never been a better year in sports for me.

There is something about a great sports moment that is similar to a favorite song that when heard causes you to remember a time and place. Almost everyone of a certain age in New York can remember hearing about the Jets winning the big game – the still very new Super Bowl which seemed particularly designed for Vince Lombardi and his Green Bay Packers to win. However, this year it was going to be my New York Jets against the supposedly superior Baltimore Colts.

In those days there was nothing like you find today of media saturation and online coverage in the weeks leading up to the Super Bowl; however, there was a good deal of press coverage and Joe Namath – still one of the most charismatic and dynamic players in the history of New York sports – made his bold “guarantee” of a win over the Colts. This may have stoked the fires of media frenzy back then, but can you imagine what it would have done today?

His display of chutzpah endeared Willie Joe to the public as much as his bizarre attire (who can forget those long fur coats?) and well publicized behavior of partying around the city. In retrospect, Joe’s antics only got him and the team more attention, but some of it could have been construed as negative. Many discounted the hotshot claims by this young quarterback going up against Baltimore’s QB Earl Morrall (NFL MVP that year) and legendary but ailing Johnny Unitas (who would eventually come off the bench after Morrall threw three interceptions). Could you blame them?

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Namath on the sidelines with head coach Weeb Eubank on January 12, 1969.
Now all these years later, when I look at the boxscore it makes clear that Namath led the way with his persona as well as his arm (11 completions for 110 yards), but there were also tangible contributions by the great Matt Snell (121 yards rushing and the Jets only touchdown) and Jim Turner, who kicked three field goals. There was also the Jets stingy defense (best in the AFL that year) keeping the Colts shutout over the first three quarters.

In the end though with legends there’s the stuff of which dreams are made – and Namath falls into the category of dream weaver. By threading the narrative that the Jets were going to win before the game, he is credited with producing the fabric of victory. Joe’s leadership got the team that 16-7 win at the Orange Bowl that year, and the legend was born that continues to this day.

We Jets fans can't help thinking of 1969 as the great year that needs repeating, and the current Jets owner Woody Johnson is now trying to build toward that with a new GM (Mike Maccagnan) and head coach (Todd Bowles). Of course, no matter what the leadership, the on the field issues of this season will compel changes that are necessary and compelling if the Jets want to see the playoffs. Does anyone out there think Geno Smith can guarantee anything but a very creative excuse as to why he went to the movies?

As it stands 1969 was a year that started off well for New York fans – the Jets winning Super Bowl III was only the start of the excitement. Later that year the Mets would show the world how amazing they could be by taking the World Series from the heavily favored Baltimore Orioles. To say this was ecstasy for we Mets fans is an understatement because no one can actually categorize the euphoria that Mets victory produced. Perhaps the only ones who could ever understand were the Brooklyn Dodgers fans who lived through the 1955 defeat of the New York Yankees in the Series.

1969 was the year that kept on giving as the New York Knicks, under the legendary coach Red Holzman, would begin a season that saw them compile a 60-22 record (we current Knicks fans can only weep as we look at 5 wins and counting) and move on into the playoffs where they would end up defeating the favored Baltimore Bullets in the division semi-finals. Of course, that team went on to achieve their first NBA championship completing the trifecta for delirious New York sports fans.

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Namath and the Jets started a winning trend that
would make 1969 the best year in New York sports history.
Looking back at it now, especially that these incongruous victories came at the expense of Baltimore as the Colts, Orioles, and Bullets lost to our underdog teams, there is still a wave of delight that washes over me. What a glorious year to be a sports fan in New York! What an exciting year to have been a New Yorker!

It all started 46 years ago with a brash young QB named Namath who promised a win and delivered. All these years later, there is a vacuum in New York sports and in the sporting world left by no replacement of a charismatic guy like Joe. Where have you gone, Number 12? With apologies to Simon and Garfunkel, though the city may turn its lonely eyes to you, I doubt this town will ever see a sports figure like you ever again.

1969 stands as the year that the United States landed human beings on the moon, but it was also the year of sports magic, a time that will be forever celebrated in this town when for that brief shining moment three championships came to New York City because our teams didn’t just shoot for the moon but reached for the stars.

  Photo credits: NY Times, AP, NY Daily News  

Saturday, January 10, 2015

Baseball Hall of Fame – It’s Time To Change How Players Get Elected

First appeared on Blogcritics.


hall 1 If everyday life had a “hall of fame,” how would people get into it? Would we survey a group of people who observed them and reported on them? Or would we have their friends vote for them? How about their co-workers? I ask these questions because of the latest Major League Baseball announcement of four new inductees (the most since 1955) to the Hall of Fame.

I have nothing against the recently elected Pedro Martinez, John Smoltz, Randy Jackson, and Craig Biggio. Biggio, a Long Island boy, is certainly most deserving and makes New Yorkers proud; however, it’s more about who did not get in – specifically Mike Piazza – and the logic supporting the reason why. New York Daily News sportswriter Bill Madden recently wrote an article describing why he did not vote for Piazza. He describes hearing rumors regarding Piazza using steroids during his career. Imagine that vague whispers and accusations were the reasoning that this fellow used to vote no on Piazza. This in and of itself explains why this subjective kind of process has to be changed as soon as possible. Madden explains it this way:
First of all, I’ve always had my suspicions about Piazza, even though he never tested positive nor was he mentioned in the Mitchell Report. Those suspicions were heightened when players who played against Piazza, a number of players, told me he used steroids.
hall 4 I have read Madden’s baseball column for years and, for the most part, I have always found his reporting to be solid and his observations to be fair to the people involved. In all those years I never saw him write one article about Piazza using steroids. If he was so convinced of his suspicions, why didn’t he ever expose Piazza during his playing days? The answer is he had no proof and could not write about it without looking like a fool – the way he does now. After this, I have lost complete respect for him and refuse to read his articles anymore. For him to vote negatively is less the issue than the reasoning involved – it lacks any merit and is based on hearsay rather than tangible proof.

This case alone makes clear why the voting process to get into MLB’s Hall of Fame is suspect. There are those icons who could have walked in the door without a single vote cast – guys like Hank Aaron, Willie Mays, Mickey Mantle, and Babe Ruth didn’t need any votes for people to know that they belonged in the hallowed hall. Obviously, this is the ultimate honor for guys who play the sport, and it should not be withheld because of the fickle nature of writers like Madden who use less than objective numbers and information to make a decision.

If you look at the voting, Piazza came in fifth and has a shot next time, but perhaps not now since Madden wrote this despicable article. By making his unsubstantiated suspicions public, Madden has sullied Piazza’s name and the voting process. It also makes us question how many other sportswriters have allowed such kinds of things to sway their votes in the past. What if a player was not as open to being interviewed as the affable Piazza? Would a sportswriter hold that against him years later when it was time to cast a vote?

My idea is to take away this privilege from sportswriters and put it into the hands of people who understand the high honor and responsibility this task requires – the players themselves. I think all active MLB players should be able to vote for the candidates – but that there should be a stringent set of criteria based on statistics, years played, and impact the player had on the sport. Using these guidelines, the players would have to tick off some kind of rubric and add the points. After calculating if the player had enough qualifying points based on performance and years played, then the only thing that could prohibit their positive votes would be impact on the game – positive or negative. Someone like Barry Bonds would get consideration by those who play the game, and his selection wouldn’t be in the hands of people, some of whom were very critical of Bonds, who may cast votes for less than objective reasons.

hall 2 Of course, players may have their agendas too, and the fear could be that they would vote for a former teammate or friend. Another voting option would be vox populi; MLB trusts the fans to decide who will appear in its annual All Star Game. Why not allow the public to decide who enters the Hall of Fame? This would also have its drawbacks, but anything is better than the present configuration that allows someone like Madden to cast a ballot and then write a ridiculous article that exacerbates his faulty reasoning by making it public.

The Hall of Fame is an enormous honor for the men who have played America’s pastime. As a new season gets underway, it is imperative that all those stepping onto fields everywhere across the land on Opening Day will have a fair shot at the Hall based on their numbers. As it stands, that is obviously not the case. Piazza deserves to be in there based on his statistics and positive impact on the game, and we have to wonder how many other guys suffered the same fate over the years. It is time to alter the way the votes are cast and that time is now. Can MLB get this right or will this be just another stain on the sport that the fans will have to overlook yet again as they pay higher ticket prices to go to games? It’s your call, MLB.


  Photo credits: Baseball Hall of Fame, Wikipedia, ESPN  

Saturday, January 3, 2015

Mario Cuomo Dies – A ‘Lion’ Whose Roar Was Heard from Sea to Shining Sea

First appeared on Blogcritics.

mario 1 When I first heard that Mario Cuomo passed away, my thoughts were of him as a man just like my father. Both were born in the New York City borough of Queens, both were Italian, and both grew up to have ideals and values that were unshaken by the hard realities of the world. My father did well enough for himself, but Mario rose to national and international prominence – a real case of a local boy doing extremely well.

After his death he was being called a “liberal lion” or “Hamlet on the Hudson” by those who remember his career, but that does nothing to qualify his true legacy – one as a voice for the regular people like those he knew growing up and living in Queens. His common touch was always evident, as was his deep love of his wife and children. He came from simple origins – his parents were Italian immigrants. They owned a grocery store and Mario often worked there to earn some cash. This humble beginning is more reminiscent of Lincoln growing up in a log cabin (read his book Why Lincoln Matters: Today More Than Ever) than all those guys with rich fathers who run for office. He was grounded in his Catholic faith and ended up at St. John’s University, where he played baseball and even had a shot at the major leagues until getting hit by a pitch in the head, ending thoughts of a big league career.

mario 2At St. John’s Cuomo would meet Matilda Raffa, and they would end up getting married and settling where else but in Queens, the borough that he loved. Mario would go to St. John’s Law School and, when someone suggested that he change his last name to a less ethnic sounding one, Cuomo refused. His identity as an Italian-American was as much a part of him as his Queens upbringing.

This background prepared him for politics – where a streetwise New Yorker would rise to the top of the political food chain in this state (he served as governor of New York for three terms) and become a national voice for the Democratic Party. Many will recall his famous speech at the 1984 Democratic National Convention in San Francisco; his oratory would always be one of his most talked about skills. It is easy to see why this eloquent and passionate countering of then President Ronald Reagan’s assertion that America was a “shining city” with the notion of a “tale of two cities” really blew away the fantasy that all was well with everyone in this country.

Cuomo made it clear that there were the haves and have-nots in America, the latter being those with whom he was intimately familiar. While Cuomo was known for standing up for the common folk here in New York and across the country, that speech started getting attention from people looking for a candidate to run for President of the United States. As Cuomo would consider running and then not seek a candidacy several times, he earned that nickname “Hamlet on the Hudson.” This conjures images of his roaming the castle keep (actually the governor’s mansion in Albany) debating the matter in his head just as the titular character from Shakespeare’s great tragedy did when confronting varying thoughts about how to capture the conscience of the king (his uncle who murdered his father).

All of this doesn’t begin to tell the story of the life of the man who was a staunch opponent of the death penalty, a supporter for women’s right to abortion (causing a clash with the Catholic church that he loved), and a staunch defender of the little guy over the big machine – whether it be political or corporate. When he turned down the chance to be appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court by President Clinton, Cuomo was opting to stay local as opposed to going out of his hometown for the rest of his life.

mario 3My Uncle Frank was a local politician in Queens, and he got to brush shoulders with state and national big names. He always fondly recalled having a drink (turns out it was few) with Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill who told him that, despite all the press to the contrary, he really liked Ronald Reagan. My uncle loved living in Queens, and he used to say “All politics is local” (which I later learned he borrowed from old Tip). Still, in essence, this is what defines Mario Cuomo’s life and career. Everything he did was grounded in his attitudes and beliefs forged from whence he came.

One can only speculate what the legacy would have been for Cuomo if he had run for president; however, his three terms as governor saw him improve the fiscal health of the state and much of its infrastructure. During this time his eloquence and intelligence brought him national recognition, and there is no question that he affected the history of New York State even after he left office, guiding his son Andrew as he rose to eventually be elected as governor just as his father had.

mario 5If Shakespeare had been writing the story, he couldn’t have created a better or more bittersweet ending than having the son Andrew giving his acceptance speech for his second term in office as governor while the father Mario lay dying. This is, however, not a tragedy like Macbeth or King Lear, for the former governor died with dignity, with an honorable legacy, and surrounded by a family that had been the most important part of his life.

My admiration of Cuomo has little to do with politics and more to do with the man himself. It would be difficult for anyone from Queens not to appreciate his love for the area. He was also an Italian-American who made anyone of that heritage extremely proud, but he stood not for just them but anyone who was working class and struggling to make ends meet. He understood intimately that those people are the essence of what made this country great.

mario 4Mario kept in touch with where he came from and never forgot that despite rising to the highest office in the state. He spoke passionately for the people who needed to be heard - the ones (as Jimmy Stewart’s George Bailey notes so eloquently in the film It’s a Wonderful Life) who do most of the living, working, and dying in this country. If nothing else, Mario Cuomo should be remembered as always being on the side of the little guy, and that makes him a towering figure whose legacy shall not be forgotten.


  Photo credits: cnynews.com,ronkaplansbaseballbookshelf.com, nydailynews, nytimes, timesunion.com

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Making a New Year’s Resolution – Should the Stars Be Our Guide?

First appeared on Blogcritics.

new 3 If you are anything like I am, you probably like to check your horoscope. There is something irresistible about learning what the stars have in store for us on a daily, monthly, and yearly basis. Many people invest time, money, and energy in studying their signs and following the “advice” that comes from the heavens (as interpreted by astrologists with varying degrees of acuity).


I have often read my horoscope and felt it was sort of universal enough to cover the bases; however, there have been times that there has been such synchronicity between my life at the moment and the words I read that forced me to think that it was more than mere coincidence. I have researched more in depth horoscopes for people I know very well, and many times it seems more than the coincidental in how accurate the description was of their personalities and behavior. So

I have been passively checking my horoscope for years, but today felt different. On the cusp of a new year, I wanted my horoscope to mean something even before I read it. In the past year I have dealt with major changes in my life, and also came to terms with the loss of loved ones (some of the residual pain going way back before 2014). Contemplating where I want to be not just in 2015 but for the rest of my life, I opened the page and was confronted with this:
Like all of us, Vic, you are mixed up in the events that surround you. The collective movements of the planets right now have the strength of a huge animal. Our individual forces are powerless against it. Just relax, and make an effort to let your life take its course. Imagine yourself drifting downstream, letting the current take you where you are meant to go. You will avoid much tension this way. Besides, the water is cool and refreshing...
I was completely unprepared for those words; furthermore, and most surprisingly, I felt totally receptive to every syllable. I am usually extremely practical, but now I was being drawn into what seemed a very attractive but highly impossible notion. Should I forget everything and follow the lead found in my end of the year horoscope?

I think my receptivity had much to do with the way I was feeling at the moment. There is always a bit of sadness on New Year’s Eve, leaving behind all that we could or could not do, remembering those lost, those beyond our help, and those who didn’t want it. Yet there is also that glimmer of hope that the new year will be better, be different, and bring joys unexpected or fathomed at midnight on December 31st.

Reading this horoscope made me think of wars, of plane crashes (and planes lost and not found as well), of Ebola and other diseases, violence in the streets in all countries, abuse of animals all over the world, the staggering volume of people suffering from poverty and hunger, and the continuing world-wide war against women, including those living right here in America – no matter how many glass ceilings are said to be shattered. All of this coalesces into the “huge animal” mentioned in the horoscope that seems like coming upon a bear in the woods, when all you have to defend yourself is a camera and a backpack. There is an ominous feeling to the thought of powerlessness, to being unable change anything no matter how wrong it is. 

But the rest of the horoscope appealed to me, and the idea to “let your life take its course” seemed profound in its simplicity. Instead of always trying to steer the boat, wouldn’t it be infinitely more enjoyable to let “the current take you where you are meant to go”?

new 1I took a deep breath and exhaled after reading this. It reminded me of the song “Let It Go” from the Disney film Frozen. My daughter exuberantly embraces this song when she plays it on the piano and sings, and I have often sat and listened to her and enjoyed it, but now I realized that the appeal of the song is the lyrics and the concept of not caring about what everyone else says to do – letting go allows you to avoid the wrong turns, the supposedly essential possibilities, and the hard stops. It is a frightening thing for us to allow the flow to take us freely away, but in the end we are not steering by the stars but just letting them bring us where we need to be.

This is, I suppose, my new year’s resolution – or a semblance of one. I really don’t like making resolutions because they are usually broken too soon or, upon reflection, are seen as impulsive and irrational. This one has a chance though, if I can be strong enough to believe in the universe as knowing much more than I do about what is best for me.

new 2I don’t know what you year ending horoscope says, but I hope you find something in it that will help guide you as you turn the page to 2015. Happy New Year to all and to all a healthy and successful 2015!





  Photo Credits: wallpaper-kid.com, Disney.com, hottytoddy.com