In Celebration of David Estrada


(This is my sharing for David’s “Celebration of Life” held at Sevenoaks Retreat Center on April 1 – Easter Sundaay)

from Pathwork Guide Lecture #82, 3/31/1961 (Good Friday), “The Conquest of Duality Symbolized in the Life and Death of Jesus Christ:”

 “This day, very appropriately, commemorates a very important event in your human history, which is closely linked to duality. On this day, Good Friday, Jesus Christ brought his life to a culmination in the greatest suffering and the greatest joy.  This is meant in a very human and concrete sense.  Suffering and joy, pleasure and pain are dualities that, in the final analysis, are only subdivisions of the great duality:  life and death — never life or death.

“Jesus’ last words on the cross expressed his doubt and fear that he was forsaken by God.  This has puzzled many people.  How could that great spirit doubt and fear?  Human illusion and idealization would have preferred that Jesus died in a glory of faith without the human doubts and fears he expressed in the hour of the culmination of his suffering.  But it was very important that this utterance be transmitted to humanity.

“In his last hour, Jesus forgot all he had known, all the revelations and insights he had gained.  Has it not happened to each one of you to some degree, in hours of depression and anxiety, that even though your intellectual memory retained what you have learned and known, you were not in command of this knowledge?  Your soul was in a dark night of unbelief and doubt.  Deceiving yourself about this state of mind, and not acknowledging how you really felt, is not the right solution. 

 “Jesus illustrated this most clearly.  He, the greatest of all created spirits, was in doubt too.  He too had lost faith for a moment.  But he acknowledged it and did not hide it from himself or from others.  What does that mean?  It means the stark, naked fear of the unknown — death — and the acute suffering of physical, mental and spiritual pain.  Jesus met it squarely, without pretense, without self-deception, without deceiving those who had faith in him.  He was truthful to himself and therefore to all who believed in him.  He was truthful even in his last moment.

 “It is only when you accept death in its undisguised nakedness, without running from it, that you can truly live”.

 Those of us who visited with David in his last months and weeks knew that he had entered a conscious process of facing this “undisguised nakedness” of physical death.

I was David’s Pathwork helper during the five years when he lived and worked here at Sevenoaks, and for a few years thereafter.  During that time, I witnessed David’s slow, evolving inner process of psychological and emotional transformation, culminating in an awareness that his Higher Self was his essential nature.

When he entered his first battle with his colon cancer a few years ago, I started visiting him in the hospital. I met his devoted mother, Isabel, and several of his close friends during those weeks.  By this point in our relationship, David was no longer my worker or client, but simply a longtime spiritual friend who I wanted to support in his healing process.

Some of you may have received David’s brave and affirming email back in the fall, announcing that his cancer had recurred with a vengeance and that he had decided not to take further treatment.  In David’s words, he was actively “transitioning”.

David decided to experience his transition in the DC area at the home of a beloved aunt.  Most of his medical support team was there, and David also had many longtime friends in DC, as he did here at Sevenoaks.  I visited David regularly through the winter, and always came away inspired by his courage and loving spirit.

In our first meeting, David had just decided to go forward with an idea to have his ashes placed in the sacred oak grove here at Sevenoaks.  He asked my assistance in helping to manifest his plan and I readily agreed.  Once this plan was in place, David seemed more settled and at peace.

 In all my visits with David, I seldom saw him waver from his full, conscious knowledge and acceptance of his dying process.  He was committed to approach his dying as consciously as he could.  He was alert and articulate, and usually greeted me with a big smile and a hearty hug.  That said, there were a number of challenging setbacks.  He was admitted to the hospice unit of Providence hospital at one point, and his discomfort brought with it discouragement and confusion.  David had to work hard to remember his intention to face his dying process squarely.

 There’s a saying in the cancer survivor community that “Cancer is not for sissies”.  As David was sharing with his closest friends and family and friends about a beautiful inner process that was opening him to deeper and deeper spiritual realizations, his body was falling part. David’s courage to stay conscious through this difficult process, no matter what, allowed him to accept the part of him that was disintegrating as he more and more came to identify with that in him which is eternal.

Puerto Rico Part 2 — Birds of a Feather

Andrea and I have been back from PR for three weeks now, but the good memories linger.  This was a special vacation for us in that we hosted our longtime friends from Rome (Italy!), who like us, were feeling worn-down by winter, and jumped at our invitation to R&R with us in the tropical Caribbean.  Andrea had met Linda and Bruno back in the 1970’s while she was on a year-long sabbatical in Rome.  They remained fast friends, and after Andrea and I married in 1988, they became my friends as well.

Andrea and I arrived in PR a week before our friends, acclimating to the post-hurricane realities of life on the island.  The two-hour drive west from the San Juan airport to Isabela gave us an eyeful of houses with blue-tarped roofs, downed power lines, and non-functioning traffic lights.  But the natural landscape was returning to its former beauty, with bright green vegetation after four ensuing months of tropical sun and rain.  We arrived at our familiar seaside destination happy to be soaking up the sun’s warmth and the raw Atlantic’s greater than usual ferocity.

I wrote some about our first week in Isabela in my previous posting.  We happily adapted to the easy-going rhythms of a beach vacation, enjoying the fabulous summery weather and dramatic coastline that had been drawing us back each February for the past twelve years.  Mostly, we felt a physical and emotional thawing out, a gradually deepening sense of relaxation and inner well-being after catching up on sleep and spending many hours in the full sun.

By the time we drove back to San Juan one week later, we were ready to receive our guests.  Andrea had visited Linda and Bruno in Italy two years earlier, but I hadn’t seen them in a decade.   Our reunion at their airport hotel was a joyous one, and the drive back filled with animated conversation.  Linda is an Italian- American from Cleveland OH who has lived and worked in Rome for most of her adult life, most of it  with her Italian-born husband, Bruno.  Both are now retired, like us, though Bruno, an architect by training, continues to work a small, family farm where he grows the multi-use, subtropical grass, vetiver.  Linda only recently retired from her position as a university linguistics professor.

Half-way back, we stopped for lunch at our favorite roadside restaurant, El Buen Café in the town of Hatillo, and feasted on some traditional local sandwiches – Cubanos and Media Noches.   As we finally approached the Isabela shoreline, we pulled over for the fine coastal view.L-B-A-1

Our guests were as pleased as we were with our spacious, 3-bedroom apartment on the ground floor of a coral-colored condominium complex right on the ocean.  The complex is adjacent to Isabela’s old fishing village (Villa Pesquera) which now consists of mostly open-air bars.  After helping our guests settle into their new digs, we all don shorts, sandals and t-shirts for a sunset walk along the beach.

The next day is Valentine’s and Bruno reminds me of my offer the night before to drive into town to find suitable gifts for our ladies.  It’s fun navigating the narrow streets of Isabela Centro with him in search of flowers, and the locals are happy to point us to one of the many shops offering such.  My Spanish is sufficient to accomplish the simple transactions that yield us some beautiful roses and sunflowers. L-A-1

Over the next two weeks together, we fall into a gentle rhythm of breakfast on the ocean-front patio, morning yoga or a refreshing swim in a marvelous outdoor pool, and planning for a daily outing.  The northwest coast of the island has a succession of expansive beaches and swimmable tidal pools, ideal for snorkeling.  Because the Atlantic is so windswept and wavy this season, we settle on just a couple of swimmable beaches.  The beach at Jobos is protected on its eastern side by large montones and we enjoy several afternoons there, laying our towels and gear under the shade-bearing palm trees along the beach.  This beach is a favorite of the locals as well as being the center for the gringo surfing community on its western side.  A couple of the restaurants there have excellent fresh seafood and we enjoy some hearty lunches there.3-in-water

After returning from our outings, we often rest and plan for our evening meal – most of which we prepare ourselves.  Bruno is an excellent cook – mostly vegetarian soups and other dishes, many with pasta, and often with fresh seafood as well.  Linda is the regular salad maker.  We’ve discovered a very decent supermarket near the Aguadilla airport where we can get fresh organic produce and many of the other whole foods we’ve grown accustomed to. Our dinners are always festive, sometimes complemented with wine or beer.  But we all find ourselves content to mostly just take in the beauty of our immediate surroundings.  The roar of the surf is a 24-7 backdrop that supports us all in its dependability and regularity.

After supper, we sometimes drive up the steep hill to the Isabela central plaza for an evening stroll and some delicious ice cream.  A mass is being celebrated in the plaza’s Catholic church one evening and we all sit in the back, taking in the enthusiastic singing, and the magnificent seascape mural behind the main altar.  On many evenings, we get out the cards after supper to play a fun Neapolitan card game that Bruno and Linda have taught us.  None of us miss our lack of a TV connection.

A few days before we returned to San Juan for a fun-filled last weekend there, Andrea and I were walking along the Isabela beach at dusk.  We noticed some small shore birds in the distance, nibbling treats from the sand as the waves receded.  Among the tiny sandpipers were a pair of larger birds with large orange bills.  As we tentatively got closer, we identified them definitively as oyster catchers, and stopped to attempt photos.  There was such a bounty of small shellfish to feast on that they tolerated our intrusion for some precious minutes.

We’d occasionally seen these distinctive shorebirds in prior years and had carefully read their description in Andrea’s Puerto Rico birding guide.  They usually appear in pairs yet maintain some yards distance between them when hunting.  Their long narrow bills, bright orange, are chisel-shaped – perfect for opening mollusks.  They cut the hinge muscles of clams and mussels with surgical precision, and then easily pry them open.  Larger waves sent them scurrying, and sometimes taking flight with a high-pitched squeal, usually returning to their original spots. AMOY-by-Alan-Wilde

Watching this amazing pair in action as the sun set into the Atlantic, I thought about couples, and the synchronized dance of closeness and cooperation, yet a certain respectful distance, that allows a species to mate for life. Turning to my life partner Andrea, and thinking about our bonded Italian friends, I took pleasure in the knowledge that our mutual pairings partake of a natural and universal prototype.

John B, 3/24/2018




Journal from Puerto Rico, Part 1

[My wife Andrea and I are enjoying our 12th annual February sojourn in Isabela, PR.  We’d had some reservations about coming this year.  We knew that the island was still in recovery mode from two strong hurricanes last September.  But our friends here urged us to come, and we’re both very glad we did.  Here’s a taste of what our first week was like.]

February 6, 2018.  There was something unusual about our morning flight to San Juan from BWI.  There were almost a dozen young mothers travelling without partners with toddlers and infants in tow.  Andrea and I shared a row with a young Puerto Rican woman and her two small boys, ages 2 and 4.  There were similar configurations of mothers and children in the rows immediately in front and behind us as well.  It was not a particularly restful flight.  The little boys in our aisle were charming yet a bit rambunctious, and increasingly restless.  The infant in the row behind us cried loudly for long periods.  I admired the equanimity of the mothers in the face of our four-hour flight.  When we finally touched down, spontaneous cheering and applause erupted from many of the Puerto Rican passengers.  In all our 12 years of travelling here, we’d never witnessed such an overflow of feeling.  These were people happy to be home.  Many of them, we surmised, were returning after extended stays in the States as temporary refugees from the devastation of Hurricane Maria.


February 8.  After spending a couple of days exploring our rented condo and its environs on the wild Atlantic in Isabela, we decided to take a ride down the coast highway to visit some of our favorites beaches.  We had seen some downed trees and many downed electric poles and non-functioning traffic lights on our 2-hour drive west from the airport in San Juan.  But the devastation we witnessed today was a scale of magnitude higher.

Our first stop was the Poza de Teodoro – a dramatic outcropping of limestone “montones” about 50 yards offshore, creating a tidal pool that is wonderful for snorkeling, and for waders of all ages.  Next to the Poza are a string of wide open, “undeveloped” beaches where the Atlantic daily crashes in with menacing intensity.  These “Middle Beaches” are a surfer’s paradise and we could spot a few of them in the distance.  So far so good, except for a few downed palm trees and some noticeable erosion to the protecting dunes.

Our second stop was at Montones Beach near the Villas del Mar Hau, consisting of about a dozen charming, beach-front cottages and the area’s finest restaurant, Olas y Arenas.  Andrea and I had stayed at the Villas on our first venture to PR twelve years earlier and still carried fond memories of our time there.  We found it strange that the gate to the Villas was open, and after stopping to watch two iguanas battling in the driveway, we drove through the property, parking in a lot near the restaurant.  It seemed eerily devoid of humans for mid-day.  But the sound of power saws whined nearby.  Walking down a wood ramp towards the ocean, we were shocked to see that the “Olas y Arena” open-sided pavilion-restaurant had been reduced to its bare flooring.  The pretty blue cottage next to it, the one where we’d had stayed, was also stripped to bare flooring.

We saw a young workman nearby who seemed happy to talk with us in his adequate English.  He said that many of the other cottages had also been damaged and that the Villas had been closed since Hurricane Maria struck the island the previous September.  He was happy to have work in the restoration, as he’d amassed debt from paying $25 per day for gasoline for the generator he’d needed for his home.  He spoke of initial food and water shortages, of no “energia” and spotty phone service, he and his family eating canned spaghetti and beans for weeks on end.

We continued west to Jobos Beach, the epicenter of Isabela’s surfing community, replete with small hotels, restaurants and bars.  The immense, horseshoe-shaped beach, with protective montones on its east side, still impressed us with its sheer majesty, even with significant erosion to the beach itself.  It was appalling to see the acres of downed trees and brush felled on the oppose side of the coast road.  We were told that the salt water from the hurricane surge had undermined the trees’ root structures.  There was a lot of evident property destruction as well, and downed wires and poles with some replacements installed above them.  Electric and cable-TV workers were at work along the roadside, making for a difficult traffic flow on the narrow 2-lane coast road.


February 10.  We got out early this Saturday morning.  Our first stop, the small farmer’s market near Ramey.  We’ve made it a point to shop and hang out there some on most of our trips.  It had rained earlier, but the sun soon emerged, and the farmers were laying out their produce and other products as we arrived.

The first persons we connected with were a middle-aged couple with a table full of leafy greens – kale, lettuce and spinach.  The man sported a “UCONN” t-shirt and I enquired of his connection to it.  He was from the States but had been living in PR for many years after his Dad had decided to build a home here back in the 1960’s.  He introduced his lovely wife from Mayaguez.  They were both proud of their healthy greens and vibrant red radishes.  Maria had devastated their garden back in September, but the tropical climate and their loving attention had clearly brought it back to life.  After making our purchase, we asked the man where we might get a good cup of coffee and he pointed across the way to where a young man was setting up his coffee stand from the back of a coffee-colored panel truck.

We greeted the handsome, dark-skinned barrister and asked about his enterprise as he completed his set up.  His father had started this business (“Papamim Café) as an extension of their small coffee farm in the hills around the town of San Sebastian.  This enterprising young Puerto Rican spoke with the jaunty self-confidence of someone who takes pride in what he does for his livelihood.  We ordered two cappuccinos and he began the process of brewing the requisite expresso and frothing the hot milk.  As a finishing touch, he used cake decorating tools to draw exquisite mandalas in the froth at the top of each cup.  The cappuccino was the best I’ve ever had.

Our next stop was the beekeeper’s table.  We’ve become fans of the local Puerto Rican honeys. Andrea asked each proprietor at the market how they had fared during and after hurricane Maria.  This man’s response was the most typical: “I lost everything.”  But now his hives were coming back, mostly with the more aggressive African bees that were proliferating on the island.  “They’re not monsters”, he insisted.  “You can learn to work with and around their aggressiveness” he said.  The sample he offered tasted superb.  And he said that the African bees were actually helping the remaining native bees by destroying the mites that had been wreaking havoc on the native populations.

The last farmer we encountered had a variety of attractive fruits and vegetables: pineapples, plantains, green leaf lettuce and tomatoes.  He was a tall, hefty, middle-aged Puerto Rican “soltero” (bachelor) who had a tale of woe about Maria that surpassed any we had heard so far.  His little farmhouse and garden plots had been devastated by a surging river just outside the town of Anasco.  The flooding river water had covered his property with a layer of silt and sometimes thick mud.  He’d built a second house on his land for his sister and had moved in with her while he was rebuilding his own roof which Maria had completely lifted off.  He had lost all his furnishings as well – furniture, bed, appliances and had already spent over $18K in repairs and replacement, with no FEMA compensation yet in site.  You could see the suffering in his eyes and hear it in his voice.  But here he was with his first crops from the year-long growing season of the tropics.  He had a steady stream of customers and we were happy to contribute to his renewal.


February 11.  I woke up early and took a solo walk out the front gate of our condo complex and onto the beach.  The Atlantic was whipped up to a fury with white spume spraying up off the shoreline boulders as the waves crashed in.  The shoreline required some careful footwork to navigate across the jagged limestone boulders for a few hundred yards before reaching a magnificent open beach.  It was a relief to remove my sandals and take in the open expanse of fine sand.  In the distance, I spotted two people out in the ferocious surf, another watching intently from shore.   I walked towards them along the shore and saw that the two in the water were riding what looked like boogie boards.  They were out about 50 yards where the whitecaps were starting to break.  I saw one and then the other maneuver their boards along the lip of a breaking wave, just like surfers.  One of them seemed to be kneeling atop the board before going under in a whirlpool of spumy white surf.

After watching in amazement for a while, I approached the third man who was also gazing out intently from the shoreline.  I asked him in English if the two were in fact riding boogie boards and he confirmed that they were.  He proceeded to explain how difficult it was to ride the boards when northerly winds accelerated the waves’ size and forward momentum.  He had decided not to venture out that morning himself but kept a close eye on his two friends.  He started telling me about the complex wind patterns affecting the waves along the island’s northwest coast.  This beach, he said, was avoided by surfers because of the waves’ consistent intensity.  But boogie boarders were evidently more daring in their appetite for monster surf.  The two offshore both got some remarkably good rides before coming in and giving us fist bumps.  They spoke to their friend excitedly in Spanish about the wind and wave conditions before removing their wetsuits and heading back to their vehicle.

The third man went on to tell me about the fraternity of those who rode their boogie boards within the larger culture of traditional surfing that predominates along this coast.  He had switched from surfing to boarding many years ago, preferring the closer immediacy to the currents and waves.  He said that the more highly competitive culture of surfing often led to an aggressiveness in taking the best waves; whereas the culture of boarding was more friendly and collaborative.

He introduced himself as Xavier and said he was from San Juan but had been living on the northwest coast for decades.  He was 40 and had a wife and 11-year-old son living with him near the Ramey airport in close-by Aguadilla.  He had moved there after his previous rented house, on the cliffs overlooking Jobos Beach, had been damaged by Hurricane Maria.  He spoke about the night when Maria hit with such devastating intensity as it moved across Puerto Rico from east to west.  A friend of Xavier’s worked at the U.S. Coast Guard station in Aguadilla and reported measuring sustained winds of 170 miles per hour.

Xavier was honest about the challenges facing him and his fellow Puerto Ricans as they went about the daily tasks of rebuilding their beloved island.  He spoke of thievery and looting in San Juan and other parts of the island, but also of the ways in which many people had been joining forces to help one another move forward. He preferred staying in Puerto Rico now, even with its challenges, rather than starting over again in the States.

The Spirituality of Imperfection

[Here’s another talk I prepared for our weekly parents’ Alanon meeting.]

A friend and neighbor recently gifted Andrea and me with the book “The Spirituality of Imperfection” by Ernest Kutz and Katherine Ketcham (Bantam, 1992).  Our friend has been in alcohol recovery for some decades, and also knows the illness from the sober parent side in Alanon.  The book is not sanctioned by AA or Alanon, but much of it is about how the 12-step recovery movement is fundamentally a spirituality of imperfection.

The authors first draw a distinction between spirituality and religion.  Their bias is clearly on the side of the fluid, flexible, more loosely organized path of spirituality, with no defined ministers, rabbis or priests.

They retell the story of how Bill W and his associates discovered a simple, but effective way to stop drinking by coming together regularly to admit their alcoholism, and their powerlessness in overcoming that addiction.  A number of participants in those early AA circles had tried the path of traditional religion to achieve sobriety.  Most of them had failed.  There was however a shared sense that some greater spiritual power was needed to achieve sobriety.  The mutual caring and support generated within the group of alcoholics provided some of the needed efficacy, but additional inspiration and practice was needed.  That greater efficacy was eventually found within the adapted practices of the Oxford Movement.  That movement itself was soon regarded as too churchy and religious, yet the 12-step practice derived from the Oxford Movement remains as the spiritual foundation of recovery.

The essence of the spirituality of imperfection lies in the acceptance of broken-ness.  The authors point to some ancient Greek and Roman pottery in which no attempt is made to fix or hide the cracks.  As with some “broken” ancient sculptures, that imperfection has now been accepted as an inherent part of the pottery’s beauty and grace.

Rather than lament the cracks, the spirituality of imperfection accepts and even embraces them.  One of its mantras is:  “God comes through the wound”.  Another is: “The crack is what allows the light to enter.”  The Christian mystic Meister Eckhart preached that to experience the fullness of God, a person needed first to descend into the core of their most wounded self.  Out of that experience of lostness and woundedness would come the real need for a higher spiritual power that would free the person from the prison of isolation and self-involvement.

In my work as a counselor, I’ve long noticed the many ways in which I and others create obstacles to our own happiness.  One of those obstacles is what I call “the idealized self-image”.  It occurs almost universally as a result of early life experiences in which we felt like failures, defeated and vulnerable after experiencing loss, disappointment, inadequacy.  A desperate, inexperienced part of ourselves acts to prop ourselves up by constructing a strong self-defense so that we will never have to suffer defeat again. We create a false self that must always be strong and in control.  But life is such that no one can really be strong and in control all the time.  Because we hold on to this idealized sense of self, we suffer an additional layer of pain and guilt every time life fails to turn out as planned.  We simply cannot meet our own idealized standards, and punish ourselves needlessly.

As parents, we all want what is best for our children, and are willing to go to great lengths to protect and defend them.  This basic instinct, however, can contribute to a kind of false idealization of who we ought to be as parents.  In many of our cases here, our children went astray with alcohol, drugs, or have various and sundry mental and emotional illnesses.  When we have internalized a sense of idealized parenthood as our model, we inevitably fall short. We desperately try to solve problems that we didn’t cause, can’t control, can’t cure, and yet frequently contribute to either by our denial or by our codependency.

The spirituality of imperfection can provide some relief here, as it has to our brothers and sisters in AA.  One of AA’s informal sayings is that religion is for people who want to avoid hell while spirituality is for those who have already been there.  Another AA saying is that religion and therapy might help us find the causes of our problems, but only spirituality offers real forgiveness.

Our closing words in Alanon acknowledge that “we aren’t perfect”.  As parents of wayward children and grown adults, we’ve all committed a plenitude of errors.  But if we stay long enough in the program, we learn that our false sense of perfectionism only adds to the suffering.  As we learn to focus more on ourselves and our own wants and needs, we let down our defenses and allow ourselves to be more fully ourselves, more fully human.  We don’t have to be perfect to be open and loving parents to our offspring in need.  And as we learn to have more healthy boundaries, our own lives have an opportunity to be renewed.  Our own mental and emotional health then allows us to be more honest and compassionate with our family members.

“Progress not perfection” is another important slogan in recovery.  The spirituality of imperfection is what enables us to acknowledge, accept and embrace who we are right now, no matter what life is bringing our way.

John Bayerl, 1/29/2018

Overcoming Adversity in Black and White


I’ve just finished reading Sing for Your Life, a book that grabbed me from the beginning and kept my sustained interest to the end.  My wife Andrea had read it some months ago and strongly recommended it to me.  The fact that she sent copies of the book as Christmas gifts to her friends and relatives finally got me to dive in.

I’ve also just finished reading online Thomas Chatterton’s excellent review of the book in the New York Times of 10/9/2016.   I recommend it for the background story of how the book came to be written as well as its excellent synopsis and evaluation.

Here I’d like to compare Sing for Your Life with another book that I recently read and reviewed, Hillbilly Elegy by J. D. Vance.  What the two have in common are stories of extreme family dysfunction with debilitating emotional and physical abuse suffered by young boys and their eventual freeing themselves from their psychic and economic burdens to achieve lives of remarkable meaning and accomplishment.  A salient factor is that one of those boys, Ryan Speedo Green, is an African American born into working class poverty in rural southeastern Virginia, while the other is a working class white boy whose family roots are in “hillbilly” Appalachia.  In both cases, the young men succeed in renewing strong, ongoing connections with their families of origins after establishing their remarkable careers.

Hillbilly Elegy is a classic first-person memoir, while Sing for Your Life is a biography composed by an experienced writer with full access to his subject.  They both fall into the category of bildungsroman, books dealing with a person’s formative years or spiritual education.  In both stories, the protagonist finds a deep inner resolve to pull himself from the mire of poverty, abuse, low self-esteem, and low expectations.  And in both cases, that deep inner resolve is encouraged and facilitated by countless teachers, mentors, coaches, and even some family members.

One major difference between J.D. Vance and Ryan Speedo Green is race.

Vance laments the many social stigmas he faced owing to his “hillbilly” identity – handicaps that were cultural rather than racial.  Growing up with first-generation migrants to southern Ohio, he experienced little respect for book learning or intellectual pursuits of any kind.  The exception was his grandmother, who strongly encouraged his education through high school.  She made it possible for him to achieve a modicum of academic success while J.D. lived with her, spared from the erratic lifestyle of his mother.  J.D.’s education becomes more practical and more demanding during his years in the U.S. Marine Corps and then college.  In addition to becoming a respected fighting Marine, J.D. learns important life lessons about budgeting, purchasing a vehicle, and maintaining a sense of priorities and order in his life.  After the Marines, J.D. gets a bachelor’s degree from Ohio State, working his way through college in a series of challenging part-time jobs that help increase his confidence and competency.

Where Vance felt most challenged from his hillbilly background was at Yale Law School.  His speech, social mannerisms, style of dress, even style of eating, were at odds with the norms of the mostly privileged student body there.  J.D. felt self-conscious and awkward much of the time in his first year at Yale.  Luckily, he falls in love with a woman classmate who has attended Yale as an undergraduate.  She takes him under her wing, teaching him the difference between Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc, which fork to use first at a banquet, how to dress and speak better.  Meeting her upper-class family reveals more of his social foibles, but his girl friend truly loves him and helps him to relax and be himself through it all.  She even hangs in with him when he devolves to anger, isolation, and emotional withdrawal emanating from his own insecurities.  J.D. studies hard and becomes an excellent law student, even getting a coveted seat on the staff of the Yale Law Review.  He graduates with honors and marries his beloved Yale classmate before moving back to southern Ohio to practice law.

Ryan Speed Green’s social and educational challenges are of another order of magnitude.  His early childhood is marred by ongoing fights between his parents that often become physical. The physical abuse soon extends to his older brother and himself.  Their mother is an angry, aggressive military veteran and she provokes much of the emotional and physical violence.  Their father leaves the family and the mother takes up with an even more abusive man.  The emotional and physical abuse of the two boys continues until the older boy is sent to live with their father in California.  This creates an even worse environment for Ryan, who finally is provoked to attack his mother.  She responds by calling the police and having her son committed to one of the most oppressive juvenile institutions in Virginia.  His two months there are a daily nightmare, with frequent stints of solitary confinement for Ryan’s continuing to act out his deep rage and hopelessness.

Ryan’s redemption from the pits of this adolescent degradation is slow and circuitous.  He has the good fortune of having some committed grade school teachers who saw his potential and gave him the extra time and encouragement he needed.  He befriends a white high school classmate and starts spending lots of time with this boy and his family, marveling at their middle-class stability, their relative affluence, and their warm acceptance and openness.  He has the great good fortune to be accepted into an advanced high school for the arts and there he begins his quest to become a singer.  His voice teacher at the school guides Ryan with discipline and encouragement, and also serves as a father figure who sometimes intervenes with Ryan’s mother to tamp down her aggressive tendencies.  The voice students at the school take a chaperoned bus trip to New York to see a Metropolitan Opera performance of Carmen.   Denyse Graves, one of the foremost African American singers of her generation, sings the title role.  Ryan is completely taken with the whole experience, especially Ms. Graves’ performance.  He vows then and there that he will become an opera singer and some day sing at the Met.

Ryan’s awareness of racial prejudice towards him heightens after he and a white arts school classmate begin spending time together.  When the girl takes him home to meet her guardian grandparents, it becomes clear that the relationship won’t be tolerated by them.  They are forced to break up and Ryan is both heartbroken and sobered by it.

As Ryan progresses as an opera singer, he wins a coveted place in the premiere national vocal competition at the Met in New York.  This is after attending what are regarded as second tier music schools for college and graduate school.  He has a beautiful, full bass-baritone voice, but his mastery of written music and the fineries of language and musical nuance are inadequate.  At the competition, he becomes aware that he is socially and culturally out of his league with most of his competitors.  Nevertheless, his determination, courage, and strong acting ability, together with his remarkable voice, garner him a top prize.

Ryan soon becomes aware of a latent prejudice towards African American opera singers.  Initially, he notices it as an underlying assumption that he will not be up to the rigors of a professional career as a singer.  Many of his colleague are condescending and some downright dismissive.  But the racial issue comes to a head when he is invited to an up-scale party where he is invited to sing.  He complies with a song from a Broadway show that he has prepared.  He’s taken aback when he is then asked to sing another — the classic song “Old Man River” from Showboat.  He knows the song well and appreciates its beauty and pathos.  But in the face of an all-white audience crying out for him to sing it, he has a crisis of spirit.  Old Joe, the character who sings it, is a downtrodden black man, who finds respite only in communion with the great Mississippi river.  Ryan intuits that his wealthy white audience are looking to him to bring the black man’s beauty and soul to them, thereby affirming their compassion and understanding for the black men.   He resents being stereotyped, having devoted himself to mastery of the great operatic composers – Mozart, Verdi, Wagner.  He refuses to be a token black singer for the largely white audiences of the Met, fighting and succeeding to retain his own integrity as a person and an artist.

It is surely impossible to evaluate the social oppression rendered to various ethnic groups and come up with a universal assessment of which group suffers the most.  Both J.D. Vance and Ryan Speedo Green have to dig deep into the fabric of their being to find the motivation and discipline for rising out of the extended traumas of their younger years.  Both were fortunate to have teachers and mentors to encourage and guide them.  I suspect that if the two of them were to encounter one another, they would celebrate their common human bond of having found liberation from the many oppressive forces, within and without, that tried to hold them back.

John Bayerl, 1/14/2018

Alanon Talk on Step 12

Step 12.  Having had a spiritual awakening as a result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to others, and to practice these principles in all our affairs.

Steps 10, 11 and 12 are referred to as “maintenance” steps.  They are what help us to keep moving in the direction of acceptance and serenity.

Step 10 urges us to continue taking our personal inventory, knowing that “defects of character” are never fully jettisoned.  By promptly admitting our errors, we’re able to pull out of downward spirals before they have a chance to build much velocity.

Step 11 urges us to pray and meditate regularly so as to improve our “conscious contact with God as we understood God.”  The Serenity Prayer works for many of us as an ongoing reminder to call on our Higher Power on a regular basis.

Step 12 offers us a promise — a “spiritual awakening” as the fruit of working this program.  We may start with some pre-conceptions of what a “spiritual awakening” is.  Depending on our religious tradition, we may think of Moses and the Burning Bush, Jesus fasting in the desert, Mohammed receiving the Koran from an angel in a cave, or Buddha experiencing enlightenment under the bodhi tree.

For many of us, however, what we receive in Alanon is a “gradual awakening”.  For me, this experience had to do with a recognition of my Higher Power as being Reality.  I learned that when I tried to avoid, control or argue with Reality, I suffered more, as did my loved ones.  A spiritual teacher I respect offered the suggestion:  “try to meet all of life’s events as if you had chosen them”.  While this is still often a tall order for me, even the act of considering it as a possibility offers me relief and comfort.

Step 12 says that our “spiritual awakening” comes as a result of these steps.  In the first three steps, we admit we are powerless and that a power greater than ourselves can restore us to sanity when we turn our lives over to that power.  Steps 4-6 outlines what is required of us:  finding and admitting or faults and surrendering those faults over to our Higher Power.  Steps 7-9 help us to make restitution to the people we have harmed by our foolish belief that we can avoid or control Reality.  Steps 10-12 are the “maintenance” steps that we take to keep our awakening fresh and vital.

The second part of Step 12 says that “we tried to take this message to others”.  For those of us in Alanon, this often means continuing to attend Alanon meetings after the relationship or situation that precipitated our coming is no longer so pressing.  We keep coming back out of a recognition of how much we have received, and a sincere desire to share this good news with others.  For some, this desire to give back is expressed in additional service, such as serving on our local and regional Alanon administrative groups.  For others it may mean staying after a meeting to talk with a new person, or even offering to be an Alanon sponsor.

The last part of Step 12 urges us “to practice these principles in all our affairs”.  Alanon is not a religious group, but for many of us, it has become an ongoing spiritual program.  We learn many important relational lessons in Alanon:  to wait until asked by our qualifiers, to stay in communication without reflexively offering advice or financial support, to allow others to receive the needed correction of suffering the consequences of their actions.  We learn about “love with detachment” and other paradoxical suggestions that we would never have come upon ourselves.  What we learn in these rooms are important lessons about life and reality.

In conclusion, I’d like to read a short summary of the “promises” of the steps.  It’s from a book about AA called “The Spirituality of Imperfection” (p. 243). It has the following quote from the book “Alcoholics Anonymous”, sometimes referred to as the “Big Book”, and expresses the promises of our program, as embodied in Step 12.

“If we are painstaking about this phase of our development, we will be amazed before we are half way through.  We are going to know a new freedom and a new happiness.  We will not regret the past nor wish to shut the door on it.  We will comprehend the word serenity and we will know peace.  No matter how far down the scale we have gone, we will see how our experiences can benefit others.  That feeling of uselessness and self-pity will disappear.  We will lose interest in selfish things and gain interest in our fellows. Self-seeking will slip away.  Our whole attitude and outlook on life will change.  Fear of people and of economic insecurity will leave us.  We will intuitively know how to handle situations which used to baffle us.  We will suddenly realize that God is doing for us what we could not do for ourselves.”

John Bayerl, 12/11/2017 Continue reading

Community Activism and Responsive Leadership – the Successful “Fight for 15” Campaign in Montgomery County Maryland

Fight for 15

I got discouraged and depressed in the days and weeks after the presidential election of 2016. In those dark days, my wife Andrea noticed an online posting about a candlelight rally to be held in downtown Rockville.  We called friends and three of us ended up participating in the rally on a cold, damp evening.  There we learned more about the “Fight for 15” — the grassroots initiative to raise the minimum wage in Montgomery County to $15 per hour within a three-year period.

An energetic group of labor union members, Casa of MD activists, and grassroots organizers and members of the Progressive Maryland community organization inspired us with their courage and their spirit.  A group called Jews for Justice were part of the organizing coalition and a rabbi spoke eloquently, and movingly, about the moral dimensions of chronic income inequality.  Montgomery County Councilmember Marc Elrich, the champion of the “Fight for 15” movement on the County Council, spoke confidently about the prospects for legislation that he had recently introduced.  Four of his colleagues on the 9-member Council had co-sponsored the bill.  And the Council had passed minimum wage increases three years ago that would brought the county minimum wage to $11.50 per hour in July 2017.

Thus began a year-long effort to bring the “Fight for 15” to a successful culmination with passage by a unanimous Council vote on November 7, 2017.   I participated in that effort and I’d like to share the process of political education, public discourse, and direct action that took us to victory.

Some weeks after the rally, the Council met to consider the bill that Marc Elrich had introduced.  There was an open discussion among the Council concerning the need for the minimum wage increase, its feasibility, and the timetable for its introduction.  Members cited econoomic studies and projections both supporting and undercutting the bill.  As a friend and I watched, listened, and took notes in the Council chamber, we both substantiated our instinct that the “Fight for 15” had the more convincing arguments.  The moral highground that the rabbi had articulated proved to be well-buttressed by the measurable, positive effects that the first set of three increases had brought to the county economy.  Continuing the course with graduated increases from $11.50 to $15.00 per hour by 2020 seemed eminently desirable and practical, and the data from other localities was mostly encouraging.  The Council went on to amend the bill that day and passed it with a 5-4 majority.

Our legislative victory celebration proved to be short-lived when County Executive Ike Leggett vetoed the bill in January 2017, citing a too rapid rise in the minimum wage rates, and insisting that small businesses needed more protections. Six votes were needed to override the veto and it was not at all clear that another Councilmember would join the majority.  Mr. Leggett also hired a contractor to perform an in-depth study of the likely economic effects of raising the minimum wage to $15 per hour. The matter rested for six months while both sides continued to hold firm to their positions.

In January my wife and I joined forces with two other politically active couples and a few other friends to form a civic group affiliated with the Indivisible movement. We were all energized by the large Women’s March right after the inauguration. One of the issues we decided to key on was the “Fight for 15” effort in our county. We named our group “For the Common Good,” and did a more in-depth study and analysis of the legislation that our County Executive had vetoed.

Last summer, Marc Elrich introduced a new version of his minimum wage bill that incorporated much of what Mr. Leggett had requested.  But this was soon overshadowed by the release of the county’s contracted economic study.  The study predicted dire economic consequences to county jobs and businesses if the previous legislation had been enacted. This report garnered major news stories in the press and broadcast media, all of which accepted the report’s findings without question.  In the ensuing weeks, many local economists began questioning both the assumptions and the methodology of the study.  By summer’s end, even Mr. Leggett had to acknowledge the gaping errors in the report, refusing even to pay for it.  But the public relations damage had already been done, and few media outlets gave more than passing reference to the discrediting of the report.

The Montgomery County Council scheduled a public hearing on the revised minimum wage legislation for late September.  In conjunction with my political comrades, I carefully prepared our testimony for the hearing.  Thirty people spoke to the Council at the hearing, the great majority in favor of the proposed wage increases.  The Chamber of Commerce and owners of some local businesses spoke against, but a few business owners also spoke in support.

After the hearing our civic group decided to lobby two of the holdouts on the Council who had voted “No” back in December.  We set up private meetings with Councilmembers Craig Rice and Sidney Katz and had cordial, engaging conversations with each of them.  Mr. Katz is the district Councilmember for five of us in our group, and we found him very knowledgeable about the nuances of the new legislation.  He told us that he believed some simple compromises could very well ensure unanimous approval.

Mr. Katz’s prediction was borne out on November 7 when Councilmember Tom Hucker proposed an amendment to the bill that was unanimously approved. The amendment created a 3-tier system for implementing the gradual increases to the minimum wage, based on the number of employees in an enterprise. It also pushed forward the endpoint for reaching the $15 goal by one year for each tier. Passing the bill was then a foregone conclusion.  And Mr. Leggett responded that day with an enthusiastic approval.

Witnessing this political drama unfold in such a successful manner has re-awakened my faith in our county government and in the efficacy of grassroots democracy.  Throughout the process, I stayed in communication with a leader in the Progressive Maryland community organization, which organized rallies and spearheaded door-to-door canvassing and large attendance at the public hearing and Council voting sessions.  The raucous celebration that followed the Council vote was an affirmation of how government can work when serious-minded legislators decide to get something done. The compromises agreed-to represent a Win-Win that satisfied both the community activists and much of the business community.  The experience also verified for me that a small group of committed citizens could make a significant difference in local public policy decisions.

John Bayerl, 11/13/17

Reflections on “Hillbilly Elegy – A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis” by J.D. Vance

An elegy is a “mournfully contemplative remembrance”, and J.D. Vance’s best-selling 2016 memoir definitely fits that dictionary definition.  But it is more than just an elegy, which also implies some idealization of a person, place or time.  This gritty story of parental neglect and Rust Belt poverty has J.D.’s self-described “hillbilly” grandparents as almost the only forces keeping him from destitution and despair. The author writes as a survivor of an extremely dysfunctional white working-class family.  His birth father exits J.D.’s life early on, and his mother’s adulthood is an almost continual descent into alcoholism, drug addiction, emotional instability, failed marriages, and financial poverty.   His rural Kentucky grandparents, transplanted to an industrial town in southern Ohio, protect and encourage him enough so that he’s able to find his way through high school, the Marine Corps, Ohio State University, and Yale Law School.

The truly elegiac parts of the story are J.D.’s remembrances of summers and holiday visits to his grandparents’ old homestead in the Kentucky mountains.  There he feels liberated from the constraints of small town life in Middletown, Ohio, and the ever-present uncertainties of his mother’s behavior.  His grandparents’ large, extended “hillbilly” family take him in with welcome warmth, humor, and a way of life still rooted in a traditional culture.

I found much of the first half of the book difficult to read as many of J.D.’s family members suffer an ongoing string of alcohol-fueled domestic fights, lost jobs, divorces, addictions, rehabs, and endless moves.  His grandparents are always present to take in J.D. and his older sister whenever things fall apart too drastically.  But it’s only in high school that J.D.’s life begins to find some semblance of stability after he finally moves in with his grandmother full-time.  “Mamaw”, as he calls his grandmother, spouts outrageously foul language and aggressive threats at anyone who dares to threaten her beloved family.  She is a strict disciplinarian with him, but J.D. knows he can always count on her for ultimate comfort and protection.  That sense of inner safety and support are what finally allow him to emerge as an enterprising young man with a sense of belonging and purpose.

J.D.’s story of self-emergence through four years in the Marine Corps after high school is downright inspiring.  For the first time in his life, he has to challenge himself to think, act, and perform physical challenges that he had never imagined himself capable of.  He greatly benefits from the Marine Corps’ extension of its influence into what he eats, how he thinks, how he spends his money, even what kind of car he should buy.  Although his service in Iraq was largely behind the lines, he benefits greatly from the camaraderie that often comes with war-time service.

Immediately on leaving the Marines, J.D. embarks with great enthusiasm into college life at Ohio State.  The Marines have taught him how to make an ongoing super-human effort, and he is able to secure his bachelor’s degree in two years, even while working almost full-time to support himself.  He maintains an active relationship with his grandmother and the rest of his family throughout this time, visiting regularly, and attending numerous funerals, weddings, and other family events.

After graduation he has his sights on law school.  With his good grades and high motivation, he is accepted at Yale Law School, where the remnants of his “hillbilly” mindset are ultimately challenged.  J.D. thrives in the free, open educational environment of Yale, yet has ongoing doubts about how, or even whether, he fits in.  He finds the love of his life in one of his classmates, a woman who graduated Yale as an undergraduate, and who takes J.D. under her wing and gently shows him how he can best adapt.  I was reminded of Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor’s memoir, My Beloved World, in which she recounts both the social and educational awkwardness of her first year at Yale Law School.  In both cases, a working class “minority” student must learn to traverse the disparities of economic class expectations in order to find their worth and efficacy.

J.D. succeeds beyond his wildest dreams, graduating law school with honors, an editor of the esteemed Yale Law Review, and courted by numerous law firms from around the country.  He and his new bride take professional law positions in Cincinnati, where J.D. can continue to maintain a connection with his family.

The most compelling part of this memoir for me involves the author’s courageous self-revelations about the emotional instabilities he carried into adulthood from his trauma-ridden childhood.  His anger, and subsequent confusion and depression, flare often and deeply whenever he feels out of his element, or emotionally vulnerable.  His fiancée hangs in there with J.D.’s outbursts and emotional distance, accepting him and encouraging him to work through the depth of hurt he has experienced in childhood.  J.D. does a deep self-search and study of what he soon realizes to be a common problem for those like him who have suffered from frequent and acute “adverse childhood events” (ACE’s).  J.D.’s self-therapy enables him to see his easily triggered hurt and anger as a residue of all the emotional pain he experienced as a boy.

Hillbilly Elegy has been much recommended to progressives like me who were caught off guard by the election of Donald Trump, unable to comprehend how the white working class could have been so shamelessly bamboozled.  J.D. addresses this phenomenon with mixed results in my book.  I can accept his view that the Democrats’ perceived elitism and unsubstantial promises for economic programs are partly responsible for the widespread working-class support for Trump.  But I also appreciate Vance’s honest observation on how the values and work habits of a whole generation of low-income white people have deteriorated, not because of Democratic Party policies, but because so many people have lost any sense of their own identity and self-worth.  For me, Vance’s greatest contribution is his owning of the emotional wounds that he suffered from the trauma of his childhood.  Those wounds, left untended, often contribute to resentment, hostility, and unreasoned prejudice and bigotry – the very passions that Donald Trump has sought to inflame for his own political ends.

John Bayerl


Bayerl Family Reunion 2017

On Saturday, August 12, more than 40 members of our Bayerl clan gathered for a day-long reunion.  It was the first such gathering for us, outside of weddings or funerals, in some decades.  Our wing of the Western New York (WNY) Bayerls comprises the ten offspring (five girls, five boys), and their families, of our parents, Joseph Bayerl (1914-1989) and Irene Ciezak Bayerl (1923-2011), both lifelong residents of Buffalo, NY.  The reunion was initiated and hosted by our second youngest sister, Anna (aka “Betsy”), at her lovely home directly fronting Lake Ontario in Kent, NY, about 35 miles west of Rochester.  Anna had purchased this bungalow on the lake with her now deceased partner, Doris Santercole.  Doris was a consummate photographer with a lot of home remodeling skills as well.  She and Anna had made major improvements on their home over the years, with a resulting comfortable, open, flowing, and aesthetically pleasing residence.  Doris was beloved among our family as much for her warmth and smile as for her ability to “herd cats” in getting us all together for some memorable Bayerl family photos.

Early Arrivals

My wife Andrea and I drove up from the DC area (Rockville, MD) on the Friday before.  We arrived at our motel in Brockport, NY around 5pm, and after a short rest, drove the additional fifteen miles to Anna’s for supper.  My sister Kathy and her husband Gene Goundrey from central New Jersey had arrived at Anna’s an hour before us after their own daylong drive.  Kathy was much enjoying her recent retirement from an administrative job at Rutgers University.  Gene was still working as an accountant.  He originated from a dairy farm in Quebec, just outside Montreal, but had been living and working in the States as a full citizen for many decades.  Their beloved son, Byron, had died at age 19 in 2007 from complications of muscular dystrophy.  Byron was an especially gifted child and young man, much celebrated as a Rutgers freshman who got around campus in his electric wheelchair, and also as the writer of thoughtful, often-inspiring newspaper columns for the Rutgers student paper.  He was social and outgoing and often a center of attention at family gatherings.

Our youngest sister Meg (aka “Margie”) arrived with her family about an hour after us.  She and her husband Luis Fanfan, a Bolivian native, had flown from their home in Denver to Pittsburgh the day before.  After an overnight in an airport hotel, they had rented a car and driven to State College, PA to pick up their son Inti.  Inti had taken summer courses at Penn State prior to starting his freshman year there on the following week.  Inti was a fine student-athlete and had been recruited by Penn State’s esteemed fencing program after his many years of success in national youth-fencing competitions.

All our arrivals were met with hugs and laughter, and after settling down, and toasting our reunion, we enjoyed a delicious supper prepared by Anna and our sister Marian, who had taken the day off work in Buffalo to drive down and help with the preparations.  Marian and Anna were especially close, and the two together had visited Andrea and me in Maryland recently.  Marian’s husband, Bob Stein, and their adult children, Ben and Jo, would be arriving on Saturday.

Anna’s windowed dining room overlooking the lake gave us a beautiful view of the sun setting into golden waters.  Anna is a public-school librarian in Rochester and especially enjoys her summers in her year-round lakeside home.  She had enough bedroom space for all but Andrea and me, who had committed to coming only the week before.

Last-Minute Prep

After a hearty breakfast near our motel, Andrea and I began our drive back to the lake on Saturday morning.  The menacing looking skies opened a torrential rain as we slowly wended our way through the small college town of Brockport.  The hard rain continued for about half an hour until the sun peaked through the clouds again.  As we got closer to Anna’s, the pavement was dry and there was full sun.

The rain was a concern in that most of the day’s festivities were planned for outdoors.  Anna had rented a large white tent for the day, which relieved some of our weather concern.  In addition, her absent next-door neighbor had agreed to let us use some of her lakefront area for the day, including her covered gazebo.

There was a relaxed yet anticipatory vibe in Anna’s home when we arrived around 11am.  Food was being prepared and arranged for the scheduled 2pm luncheon.  Family members had also been invited to bring specific kinds of food for a potluck component.  Inti and his Dad, Luis, were carefully making “Bayerl Family Picnic” and “Parking” signs to place on the mailbox along the road.

Anna had conceived the idea for the reunion a year earlier at a family vacation.  Some of us sibs had been vacationing together one week each summer for some years.  In fact, Anna, Kathy, Marian and I (and spouses) had spent a week together a month earlier on Lake Vanare, near Lake George, NY in the Adirondack region.  But Anna wanted to host a gathering of the whole family, and the rest of us concurred.  Her lakefront home was the perfect location, less than an hour’s drive for the locals on both the Rochester and Buffalo ends of WNY.

The Party Begins

By 1 pm additional family members began to arrive.  Among the first was Marian’s spouse, Bob, who drove from Buffalo with their adult daughter Jo and her partner Pam Dreslinski.  Jo and Pam had joined the family at our summer Lake Vanare vacations for the past two years.  They had also attended a big family wedding with us last December, and had just bought a home together in a Buffalo suburb.  Pam was becoming as much a part of the family as Doris had been.

After he unloaded their food and camping gear, Bob and I took a little walk along the stressed lakefront.  Lake Ontario’s waters had risen some three feet in recent years and the evidence of this was easy to see in the many cracked and failing cement retaining walls.  This past spring, Anna had recruited friends and family for a weekend of laying sandbags to bolster the cement walls.  Bob recalled carrying the 50-pound sandbags and placing them at strategic points along the wall.  For now, Anna’s home was high and dry. But long-term concerns remained as all the Great Lakes continued to rise with the climactic turn to higher yearly precipitation.

We spread some lawn chairs on the edge of the lakefront as Bob also scouted out potential camping spaces for the sleep-tent he would put up that evening.  His and Marian’s adult son Ben arrived from Cleveland, OH a short while later.  Ben’s spouse, Julie Burrell, had another family event to attend that day. Ben would also be camping out along the lake that night.  Ben had just started a high school teaching job in Cleveland and was a little nervous at re-entering this field.  He had an MFA in creative writing and was an experienced writer and educator.  Julie was a popular professor in Black Studies at Cleveland State University. They’d purchased a home together in Cleveland and were starting to feel settled there.

Next to arrive was our brother Larry with his adult daughter Val and younger daughter Bridgette and her boyfriend Ryan.  Val had been injured in a gymnastics accident in her youth and had never fully recovered, but kept making some progress.  Bridgette was preparing to return to the University of Pittsburgh for her sophomore year.  Larry is a retired Buffalo police officer, a lawyer and former Deputy Police Commissioner in Buffalo.  I’ve gotten to know Larry better over the past year owing to our participation in a family book group. (Anna, Marian and Meg also participate with us in a monthly conference-call discussion of an agreed upon work of mostly recent novels).  Larry is an astute judge of human character and a consummate reader of serious fiction and nonfiction. He has brought most of the liquid refreshments for the occasion, including a variety of beers, soft drinks, juices, and bottled water.

Our brother Tom and his spouse Karen arrive next.  They have three adult, married children, each with two young children of their own.  Tom and Karen are active grandparents for their growing brood and are models of parental generativity.  They hosted the last family reunion in the mid-1980’s at their home in a suburb of Buffalo.  Two of their kids, Michael (the oldest) and Kristen (the youngest) live with their families in the Rochester area.  The middle son, Greg, and his family live fairly close to Tom and Karen in Buffalo’s outer suburbs.

Tom and Karen’s growing family represents a major element of the Bayerl family’s extension into the 21st century.  Michael is a committed high school Social Studies teacher and his spouse, Sara, has an administrative job at the Rochester Institute of Technology. They were both solid student-athletes and are inculcating their son Jack (10) and daughter Cate (5) with lots of care, fun, and loving discipline.  Michael and Cate arrive first, Cate energetic and outgoing despite her recently broken arm set in a pink cast.  Sara arrives with Jack after he’s completed a winning baseball game for the travel team that Sara helps to coach.  My own childhood nickname was “Jack” and I’ve had a fondness for my namesake over the years, albeit at a distance.  It does my heart good to see Jack playing with his Dad at the party, sporting a large printed “BAYERL” across the back of his baseball shirt.

Greg soon arrives with his spouse Heather and their two very young girls, Hannah and Harper.  Greg is a consummate salesman of industrial technology and one of the most outgoing of our clan.  Heather is a former nursery school teacher with an obvious love and attentiveness to her two girls.  Like their father, the two girls are energetic and outgoing.

Kristen and Nate live in nearby Spencerport, NY.  They are both practicing pharmacists and active parents to Lily(2) and Josh (8 months).  Nate is a Rochester area native withlove of travel and adventure that Kristen shares.  Their kids are obviously well loved, and the couple plans to continue traveling with the young ones in tow.

Our brother Bob and his spouse Susan arrive next.  They both retired in March and took off together on a 10,000 mile, 6-week road trip around the country.  They have lots of interesting stories from their travels, though both confess to being happy to sleep in their own bed and prepare their own food again.  Susan worked in nursing and was a VP for a large home-health company for many years before she retired.  Bob is a master builder and jack-of-all-trades who worked at an industrial supply company for most of his career.  Their two adult kids, Sarah (28) and Jon (27), are both married.  Sarah and her spouse Adam Larkin have a 10-month-old girl, Penelope.  Jon and his spouse, Michelle, married last December at the beautiful, old St. Louis church near downtown Buffalo.  Andrea and I drove up for the wedding and ensuing reception at the renovated Hotel Lafayette downtown.  (Sarah was unable to make our reunion but I did get to see her and Penelope a few days later at her parents’ comfortable country home in Wyoming county.  I also had an opportunity to get to know Jon and Michelle more deeply after Jon invited me to join them for chicken wings at a restaurant in Buffalo’s Allentown neighborhood a few days later.)

Our oldest brother Marty, and his wife, Katy, were among the last to arrive.  Marty is a retired Buffalo police detective and Katy a homemaker who also worked many creative jobs inside and outside of the home.  Marty had a health setback last year but has made a big recovery.  Everyone was very happy to see him so nimble and chipper.

Marty and Katy adopted three girls: Amy, Megan and Holly.  Amy and Holly were born in South Korea and both have adapted well to their lives in America.  Megan was American-born in difficult circumstances.  She became estranged from her adoptive family and had died a few months previously, leaving behind a husband and three grown children.  Amy had arrived earlier with her partner Jeff.  Each of them had two girls from previous unions and both were still active parents.  Holly also had two girls but was unable to attend the reunion.

Our sister Joan had recently moved to Florida and was unable to make the reunion.  She had a long career with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and was still working as a Product Safety coordinator. Her son Steve, a recent college graduate now working in Buffalo, did come and shared some about his work and an upcoming trip to China.

Andrea and I had adopted two older children from Brazil in 1998, Denise (now 31) and her brother Lucas (27).  They both lived in the DC area and had children of their own.  Denise’s three-and-a-half-year-old son, Caleb, had been a regular visitor at our home.  Lucas’ two boys, Arjun (5) and Naveen (3), had recently re-entered our lives and Andrea and I were both grateful for it. Neither of our adult kids attended the reunion, but they were asked after by some of their cousins, who remembered them from our joint summer vacations at Lake Vanare.

A Beautiful Summer Day and Evening

Most of our reunion consisted of hanging out, talking, eating and drinking, on the beautiful lakefront lawn behind Anna’s home. It was a marvelous environment for relaxing and catching up with one another.  As Anna observed to me: “there’s nothing like real-time, face-to-face contact in this age of email and smartphones.”  Many of the conversations and sharings were priceless.

The sun shone bright and clear for most of the afternoon except for one brief shower, when the tent and gazebo gave shelter to us all quite nicely.  The young cousins played and frolicked with one another and with some of their more nimble aunts and uncles.  The late luncheon was delicious and satisfying, complemented by all the many side-dishes that people had brought.  There were some organized games late in the afternoon, and as the evening came on, a number of the overnight campers began setting up their tents.  Our brother-in-law Luis had laid wood for a campfire and lit it as the sun set in the western end of the lake and the temperature began to drop.  Andrea and I drove back to Brockport for the night, planning to return to Anna’s for another full day visit on Sunday.  Those who camped overnight at Anna’s (Meg, Luis, Inti, Marian, Bob Stein, Jo and Pam) all reported a windy but memorable night as the annual Persead meteor shower was in full display in the dark skies over Lake Ontario, a fitting display of natural fireworks after the long-anticipated Bayerl family reunion.

Finding Good Amidst Evil


Ursula Werner’s brilliant debut novel, The Good at Heart, is an inspiring story in an inauspicious setting.  Like the popular 2015 novel The Nightingale by Kristen Hannah, Werner’s book focuses mainly on the lives of women desperately trying to maintain a semblance of order and domesticity in a small European town during the ravages of World War II.   While Hannah’s story provides immediate empathy for a French family’s struggle to survive the misery inflicted by the invading Nazi army, Werner’s builds more slowly as she describes three dramatic days in July 1944 among the Eberhardt family living in the small German town of Blumental on the Swiss border.  The paterfamilias, Oskar Eberhardt, heads the finance ministry within the Nazi government in Berlin, and the dark cloud of Hitler’s Nazis colors the mostly mundane life of Oskar’s wife Edith, daughter Mariana, and granddaughters: Lara (13), Sofia (9), and Rosie (5).

Ms. Werner reported many peremptory rejections from potential publishers of a novel that purported a sympathetic treatment of Germans during the Hitler era.  My own strong doubt that there were “good at heart” Germans in that era had been shaped by the classic 1961 film, “Judgment at Nuremburg”.  In that riveting film, Spencer Tracy plays the chief judge at one of the post-war trials in which civilian German administrators and judges who collaborated with the Nazis stand accused.  The film is ruthless in uncovering the fundamental Nazi complicity of even “good upstanding Germans” of that era.  Werner’s novel starts with a quote from the doomed Anne Frank desperately insisting in her journal that “in spite of everything I still believe that people are really good at heart.”

Ms. Werner tells a dramatic and at times spellbinding story.  She is an accomplished writer and storyteller and, once engaged, I found it hard to put the book down.  Her principal character, Mariana, is a complex, passionate mother, daughter, adulterous lover, and committed partisan in the small anti-Nazi resistance movement in Blumental.  Her personal drama provides much of the novel’s lifeblood.  Mariana’s mother, Edith Eberhardt, is believably portrayed as a devoted wife who nevertheless harbors disillusioning doubts about her husband’s status within the Fuhrer’s inner circle.  Mariana’s three daughters are all expertly depicted as children determined to continue their lives as children despite the adult-created anxiety and destruction all around them.

This historical novel is based on stories that Ms. Werner collected from her own German family.  She reports that she was long troubled by veiled reports of her great-grandfather’s involvement in Hitler’s government.  Her aging relatives in Germany finally acceded to her requests for stories and documents and to her surprise, she found that her great-grandfather had been exonerated by his Ally-appointed judges after it was determined that he had assisted Jews in leaving the country.  It’s clear that Ms. Werner maintains strong ties with both her family and her native country and her novel is filled with accurate historical background, realistic geographical setting, and an uncanny sense of what it meant to be an anti-Nazi German living in the police state of that era.  This is a book that both warmed my heart and challenged my mind, opening both to the possibility that some Germans had in fact retained their full humanity and ultimate goodness despite the thick moral darkness of the times in which they lived.

John Bayerl