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


“Empire Falls” — a Novel of Community and Personal Redemption

Empire Falls — a Novel of Community and Personal Redemption

 Richard Russo’s brilliant 2001 novel, Empire Falls, won a well-deserved Pulitzer Prize and has become a classic of American late-twentieth-century fiction.  The story takes place in the fictional, down-on-its-luck mill town of Empire Falls in southwestern Maine.  After over a century of prosperity from its paper and textile mills, the town has fallen on hard times with the closure of both the mills and of a large shirt factory, all owned by the Whiting family for many generations.

Most of the events of the novel take place during a two-month period in the mid-1990’s, when cell phones were still virtually unknown and only a few digital pioneers ventured onto the Internet, mostly for email.  The main venue is the Empire Grill, a small restaurant-diner in the heart of town, managed by 42-year-old Empire Falls native, Miles Rob.  Most commercial properties in Empire Falls are still owned by the Whiting family and the diner is no exception.  Miles started working in the diner right out of college after being called home to tend to his critically ill mother.  To his own dismay, he has stayed on at the diner for over twenty years after his mother’s death, during which time he has married, bought a house, and fathered a daughter.  He holds onto the promise that Francine Whiting, the last of the family dynasty, will one day give him ownership of the diner, after which he fantasizes selling it and moving away with his teenaged daughter.

The Empire Grill is a regular gathering place for many of the characters in the novel.  Miles’ younger brother Dave is the principal cook.  Dave’s girlfriend Charlene is the principal waitress who has worked at the Empire Grill since Miles had a crush on her in high school.  His daughter Tick helps with bussing tables and dishwashing after school.  And his soon-to-be ex-wife, Janine, has also lent a hand when needed.  The main reporter for the small local newspaper, Horace Weymouth, is a daily customer, as is Walt Comeau, the self-proclaimed “Silver Fox”, owner of the only health club in town; Walt is also the current lover and prospective husband of Janine.  Another regular customer and sometimes clean-up worker is the zany, irresponsible, alcoholic father of Miles and Dave, Max Rob.

As diner manager, Miles presides over this eclectic, sometimes unruly bunch.  The cheapskate Silver Fox occupies a seat for hours on end with only his unlimited coffee to show for it.  He regularly strips down to his muscle shirt to display his impressive late-middle-aged physique, and often challenges the mild-mannered Miles to arm wrestling.  Brother Dave has just recently recovered from a near-fatal, alcohol-induced car accident and has virtually lost use of one arm and hand.  Horace Weymouth is a wise old curmudgeon who brandishes a large ugly cyst over one eye that he refuses to have treated.

“Empire Falls” is often a darkly comic novel.  Much of the darkness stems from the dire economic straits of the town, largely the result of the self-aggrandizing business policies of the Whiting family.  Humor is what keeps Miles and Dave sane in the midst of the townspeople’s unfounded belief that the mills will one day reopen, and that the town will return to its former prosperity.  The main story of the novel is bookended by a Prolog and Epilog, containing the multi-generational tale of the Whiting family in Empire Falls.  The fate of that family intertwines in surprising and complex ways with that of the Rob family.  Miles’ growing realization of that connection inspires much of the plot, leading to a series of epiphany realizations that clarify his destiny.

Miles is a devout Catholic, as his mother had been, and his primary friendship is with the radical-leaning Father Mark.  Father Mark has been sent to St. Catherine’s, a backwater parish in an economically depressed town as punishment for having performed an act of conscience in slightly damaging a U.S. Navy nuclear submarine bearing nuclear-tipped missiles.  (The Catholic priest Berrigan brothers had actually performed numerous such acts of anti-war civil disobedience during that time).  Father Mark is technically the assistant pastor, but the pastor-in-name, Father Tom, is far enough gone in his Alzheimer’s dementia that Father Mark has to be completely in charge — another dimension of the hierarchy’s punishment of Father Mark for his radical civil disobedience.

Miles is a daily communicant and also on the Board of the church.  He has volunteered to paint the church for free as a cost-savings for the cash-strapped parish.  His frequent conversations with Father Mark in the rectory have the effect of making his painting work more sporadic.  In addition, Miles has become afraid of heights and dreads the prospect of climbing so high to paint the church steeple.  Fr. Mark relishes Miles’ intelligent, sensitive company and uses him to try out his sermon themes.

In conversation with Father Mark, Miles shares that he was not always afraid of heights.  In fact, he had a childhood reputation as a fearless climber of trees, telephone poles, and rooftops, often scaring his mother.  But at some unrecognized point, a nagging fear had crept in, paralyzing Miles when he most needed to be courageous and daring.  In the same way, Miles had always been a serious student, and had used his three-and-a-half years at a small Catholic college in Portsmouth to begin building a sense of himself as a scholar and man of letters.  But his mother’s illness broke that spell of academic advancement, and Miles’ fear of heights is symptomatic of his stuckness, and failure to make it into even the bottom rungs of the middle class.

Miles is regularly called in by Mrs. Whiting for unsolicited advice on how to run the restaurant, and also how to keep order in the town.  He has served on the School Board and Mrs. Whiting now wants him to run for Mayor (a low-paid, high-responsibility job that Miles wisely wants nothing to do with.)  Miles is one of the few people in Empire Falls who can speak his mind with Mrs. Whiting, but mostly to no avail.  He deeply resents her calculating control of all commercial enterprises in town, yet can’t find an effective way to skirt her authority.  He also doesn’t understand why Mrs. Whiting always seems to have it in for him, until one day, he sees an old photo in the town newspaper that includes his mother, Grace, and Charles Whiting, Francine’s deceased husband.  Miles has his first epiphany with the recognition of Charles Whiting as the man that his mother had a brief affair with while the 10-year-old Miles travelled with Grace to the exotic Martha’s Vineyard.  Miles slowly realizes that Francine Whiting has been punishing both his deceased mother and himself all these years for her own husband’s adultery.

Most of the events in “Empire Falls” take place within a two-month period beginning in early September.  The last 100 pages of this 400-page book bring the many subplots to a rip-roaring climax that makes it hard to put the book down.  Miles goes through a series of deep, personal transformations as he and his brother decide to join forces with Miles’ ex-mother-in-law to create a new, more robust restaurant.  In one unforgettable day, he decisively arm wrestles the Silver Fox down (breaking his opponent’s arm in the process), confronts Mrs. Whiting, and attacks an off-duty police officer who is guarding her.  He is beaten and arrested and finds himself barely conscious in a hospital bed, writhing in pain.  On the following day, his daughter is almost shot in a crazed, fatal rampage by a deeply disturbed fellow student.  He manages to leave his hospital bed to rescue his daughter and pirate her away to Martha’s Vineyard.

In Martha’s Vineyard, Miles and his daughter find winter refuge in an unused summer home that two old college friends have let him use.  His daughter slowly recovers from the trauma of the school massacre, and Miles has time to do some deeper soul-searching.  He spends his days in a public library while his daughter is in school.  There he re-connects with the sense of self he had in college:  as a scholar and writer.  He experiences a deep bitterness at having missed the opportunity to fulfill this higher calling.  He decides to revisit the cottage where he and his mother had lived while she was having her romantic affair with Charles Whiting thirty years previous.  There, on a cold, foggy afternoon, the ghost of Charles Whiting appears to him and engages him in conversation.  Miles expresses his anger at Whiting for having abandoned his mother, Grace, after the affair.  Whiting tells Miles that he very much wanted to go off with the beautiful, soulful Grace, but that Grace was not willing to abandon her son.

Just previous to this, Miles had learned from his brother that Francine Whiting had drowned in a major flood that swept through her property in Empire Falls.  Of a sudden, the Whiting family, his lifelong nemesis, seems much more human, even pathetic in its own frustrated happiness. Miles sees the truth of this and, after long and heartfelt crying (“the kind of crying that does some good”), is able to relax his anger and blame.  He realizes that his lifelong bitterness towards the Whitings had kept him in a victim’s stance that made it impossible for him to fully grow up, to finally leave behind the fears and doubts of childhood. He falls into a profound sleep and awakes to a new reality:

“He awoke a man, with no idea how long he’d slept.”

“Empire Falls” is a rich, rollicking read filled with human passion, love, devotion, betrayal and ultimately, redemption.  After his final epiphany on Martha’s Vineyard, Miles is ready to return to Empire Falls, a wiser, saner man, ready to offer his full manhood to his ongoing destiny in his hometown.

John Bayerl, 8/7/17

“Let go, let God”

[I prepared this piece as the lead sharing for our weekly, parents Alanon group last night. My wife Andrea and I have been active members of the Alanon fellowship for seven years.]

“Let go, let God”

Step 6 of the Twelve Steps says: “Were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character.”

I am still working Step 6.  I did conscious work for many months on Steps 4 and 5 with an Alanon sponsor.  In Step 4, I took the plunge to do a thorough self-examination.  As I began that process, my sponsor asked me to first write out a list of my best qualities.  This eased entry into the more difficult work of acknowledging and admitting my faults to “God, myself, and to another human being.”  My sponsor also helped me to see that there was an interesting relationship between my virtues and my faults; that many of my faults were distorted versions of my virtues.   Step 5 invites us to go a level deeper to determine “the exact nature of our wrongs.”  This took me to a level of questioning some of my fundamental beliefs about the nature of Reality.  The “nature of Reality” is my current working understanding of God.

I am learning that working Step 6 requires prayer.  My inner work sometimes suffers from an over-reliance on my self-will.  Self-will works fine in the domain of most self-help programs. But Alanon is more than another self-help program.  The prayer “Let go, let God” allows me to release my self-will and trust in the benevolent unfolding of a Higher Power.

My positive will serves me very well in many aspects of my life.  In fact, my positive self-will got me to Alanon and to a place of serious inner work.   It gets me out of bed in the morning and enables me to make commitments to projects and goals that are important to me.  But I discovered that I cannot simply will serenity, peace, or happiness.  The entire efficacy of the Twelve Steps is based on a personal experience of our Higher Power, and that requires me to loosen the reins of “what I want”.  Another version of the prayer for me is:  “not my will but Yours be done”.

To become “entirely ready” to turn my inner doubts and fears over to a Higher Power, I had to first use my conscious good will to honestly and fearlessly face myself as I am.  For me, this requires a stripping down from pretense and from an identity built on outward accomplishments.

One of the beliefs that I unearthed in Steps 4 and 5 had to do with my motivation for one of the most important undertakings of my life:  the adoption of two older Brazilian street kids:  “at risk” kids par excellence.  These two grown children are now my Alanon “qualifiers”.

Along with a genuine desire to expand our loving home, and a genuine desire to come to the aid of “throw away” children, I discovered a self-righteous pride for being such an exemplary person.  When our kids acted out with drugs and alcohol, this self-righteous pride took a serious hit.  I was doubting myself and slipping into depression.  Part of the reason was that I could no longer proudly claim my great valor and compassion for the adoption.  Drilling down into the “exact nature” of my depression revealed how I had built a sense of self based on the performance of good deeds.  When my good deed went awry, my sense of self took a big hit.

This led me into an inquiry into the truth-value of my ruling belief that my self-worth required an ongoing performance of good deeds.  Is this what reality is requiring for me to feel like a whole, healthy person?  I could easily see the fallacy in this belief, yet I felt it was so deep in me that letting it go would mean the loss of everything worthwhile in my being.

I could certainly see that others of my family and friends were not so driven by the need to perform good deeds.  And I admired and loved many of them.  I certainly didn’t require others to be performing good deeds in order for me to accept, trust, and value their essential worth.  “Let go, let God” became an important prayer for me in releasing the tyranny of my self-imposed requirement that I must always do good deeds to prove my value and worth.

So Step 6 is steering me to fundamentally challenge this false belief that my self-worth requires ongoing self-sacrifice.  I can accept the mission that I signed up for with the adoption, without relegating my life to ongoing strife and hopeless disappointment.  Once I articulated this, I sensed other possibilities.  And yet, with the continued acting out of a qualifier, I would regularly return to my false belief.

I’m learning that in prayer, I can acknowledge my own powerlessness.  Using self-will alone, I’ve not been able to make the leap to a new personal paradigm.  “Let go, let God” and the serenity prayer are helping me to let go of responsibility for all the many events in life that I have no control of, especially the choices and behaviors of my adult children.  These prayers offer me inner peace and positive self-esteem even when my wayward adult-children act out once again.

The prayer “Let go, let God” points me to a place where I can feel myself as real, whole and loving, without having to prove it to myself or anyone else.  With faith and trust in my Higher Power and my own Higher Self, I can become “entirely ready” for the God of my understanding to liberate my spirit.

Remembering Fr. Claude Bicheler

Claude Bicheler

Remembering Father Claude Bicheler (1933-1986)

I had the great good fortune to have Father Claude Bicheler as my English teacher for all four years at Bishop Turner high school in Buffalo, NY, 1963-1967.  I say this in retrospect, because for the first six months of freshman English with him, I often felt challenged and somewhat disoriented.  Fr. Claude ran a tight classroom in our all-boys, Catholic high school.  And he had a way of making us squirm when he insistently engaged us in real-time Socratic dialogs, requiring that we think and speak on our feet.

I considered myself a good student, but the Catholic nuns who taught me in grade school didn’t prepare me for the kind of wide-reaching, creative assignments that Father Claude gave us.  Father Claude was a real stickler with our written assignments, marking them up with questions, comments and suggestions.  I was intimidated at the care he took with language and expression and at first dreaded our one-on-one assignment reviews.  I remember agonizing for most of a fall weekend over an essay we were asked to write on any topic with only one requirement:  not to use any form of the verb “to be” (“is, are, were, was,” etc.).  I was at a complete loss at first, discovering just how dependent I was on that one verb for most of my expression.  But eventually I got the hang of writing in the active voice with action verbs and Father Claude rewarded me with encouragement and praise.  At the end of the first semester, he invited me to consider writing for the school newspaper, which he was moderating then.  I remember writing my first story about the Turner track team, and the thrill it was to see it in print with my by-line.

Fr. Claude loved all the arts — literature, drama, music, and the visual arts.  He was best known as the director and producer of all the plays and musicals presented by Turner and our nearby sister (all girls) school, Archbishop Carroll.  Turner opened its doors in the early 1960’s and had a large, well-appointed auditorium which Fr. Claude put to good use.

In freshman year, we studied Thornton Wilder’s classic play “Our Town”.  Fr. Claude’s teaching method was to assign the parts to his students and read it aloud in class.  I remember being mortified at having been assigned the part of Mrs. Gibbs, anticipating the wisecracks from my peers.  Fr. Claude allowed some good-natured kidding but quickly made it clear that he’d brook no sarcasm during the reading.  I was shy and introspective when I entered Turner and the very idea of being on stage really scared me.  Somehow I got through the reading and was surprised to find myself strangely moved by Mrs. Gibbs.  “Our Town” was our school play that spring and I loved watching the fully staged performance.  I was amazed and admiring of the credible performances of the student actors and actresses, especially by one of my new friends, Mike Krempa, who played the town miscreant, Simon Stimpson.  The next year Fr. Claude pulled together an ambitious and exciting student production of the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical “Oklahoma”.  Others of my classmates had major parts in it and I absolutely loved the performances.  I had unexpectedly discovered a life-long passion for live theater that rivaled my interest in sports.

By sophomore year at Turner the trajectory of my academic interests gravitated more and more to literature, writing and the arts.  I’d entered Turner expecting to follow in my older cousin’s stellar academic footsteps with lots of math and the hard sciences (chemistry and physics).  But Fr. Claude was still the most compelling of all my teachers, even when he made me angry and uncomfortable.  I began hanging with the guys who acted in Fr. Claude’s plays and who edited the school newspaper and yearbook.  I continued to hone my skills as a student journalist, while also developing a deep appreciation for literary novels, plays, and even poetry.  This was pretty far afield from anything I had grown up with on the hard-scrabble, working class East Side of Buffalo.  The one exception was my Mother, who was an avid reader, and who encouraged me in my new-found interests.  I enjoyed the required course in biology in sophomore year, but when it came time to decide, I followed my intuition and signed up for the “liberal arts” track for my junior and senior years.

Fr. Claude became a real mentor for me in my last two years at Turner.  I became an editor on the school paper, and then the lead editor for our yearbook.  By senior year, I even auditioned for and got an important part in the spring play, “Caesar and Cleoptra” by George Bernard Shaw.  Once again, I went through some deep personal challenges as Fr. Claude pushed me out of my remaining shyness into a place where I could actually enjoy being in the floodlights.

By that time, I had become a full-fledged member of a group of about a dozen classmates united in our devotion to Fr. Claude and what he had to offer.  We accompanied him to professional theater productions in Buffalo, neighboring Toronto, and the world-class Shakespeare festival in Stratford, Ontario.  We went to classical musical concerts at Kleinhans Music Hall, art shows at the Albright Knox art gallery, and the occasional art film or lecture at the University of Buffalo.

In my junior year, I attended a school assembly about a Catholic student exchange program with South America.  I’d been saving some money from my paper routes and other odd jobs and was inspired to sign up.  In the spring, I was assigned to spend eight weeks that summer with a family in Quito, Ecuador.  We were expected to know some Spanish and I recruited Fr. Claude to be my private tutor.  Among all his other talents and experience, he had lived in Puerto Rico as a young priest and was fluent in Spanish.  He happily agreed to tutor me and I was deeply grateful for it by the time I landed in Quito early that summer to discover that my new family spoke no English at all.  Fr. Claude had suggested that I write to him in Spanish that summer and I did, further enriching the whole experience.

In junior year, we focused on British literature in Fr. Claude’s English class.  I was swept off my feet by the English romantic poets, especially Wordsworth.  I remember Fr. Claude reading aloud from Wordsworth and feeling a kind of inner spiritual expansion and mystical connection with God’s presence within the natural world.  The romantic poets gave expression to amorphous feelings I was having in my own solo walks and bike rides in Buffalo’s parks and undeveloped woodlands outside of the city.  Those experiences made me decide to be an English major when I entered college.

When I began my college search, my immediate focus was on small out-of-town Catholic colleges.  I had done well academically at Turner and felt confident I would garner some scholarship money.  I went to Fr. Claude for advice and his first suggestion floored me:  “Why don’t you apply to Harvard, John?”  Once again, I was intimidated by a challenge from Fr. Claude, but my experience of the past years allowed me to at least consider his suggestion.  I ended up applying to Siena College, Fordham, and Harvard.  I had an interview with a Harvard alumnus in Buffalo and felt ok about it.  Even though I got a rejection letter, I was grateful to Fr. Claude for his confidence in my abilities.

I remained in touch with Fr. Claude all through my years at Fordham University in the Bronx.  Having all of New York city at my disposal, especially the New York drama and music scenes, was very exciting.  One of my friends from our tight group at Turner, Steve Polniaszek, was studying downtown at the the NYU drama school in Greenwich Village.  I was downtown with Steve almost every weekend, attending plays and going to concerts, and taking in the burgeoning counter-culture of the late 1960’s.  We both stayed in touch with Fr. Claude and saw him in Buffalo or during his own occasional ventures into the big city.  I remember seeing the original off-Broadway production of the rock musical “Hair” in 1967 and buying the cast recording as a gift for Fr. Claude that Christmas.

After college graduation, Fr. Claude helped me to get a teaching position at Archbishop Walsh high school in Olean, NY.  During that time, Fr. Claude was renovating a country home in South Wales, NY and I spent some time helping out, even recruiting my Dad and brothers to help put up drywall. I remember many wonderful visits with Fr. Claude in his country home, one time even venturing out the 30 miles from Buffalo on a bicycle.

I eventually moved south to take various teaching positions in Savannah and then Atlanta, GA.  I had less contact with Fr. Claude after he left Turner in 1971 to become a parish priest, but still visited on my journeys home. I remember an all-day trip with him to Niagara-on-the-Lake for dinner and a play at the summer Shaw Festival there.  I knew that Fr. Claude suffered some heart problems, but I was shocked to hear of his early passing in 1986.  I was living in Washington, DC  and was not able to come home for the funeral – a lapse that I still regret.

Fr. Claude remained a devoted Catholic priest to the end.  I admired his devotion, integrity and creativity even after I left the church in the 1970’s.  Knowing him is certainly a highlight of my life, an ongoing inspiration and challenge to strive for excellence in every endeavor.  He was a teacher and mentor who helped me find my way in life and I remain ever grateful.



Opening the barbecue for cleaning,
removing the grill and bars,
I see you coiled in the base.
The light and sound disturb your rest
And you slowly uncoil,
Your small head leading,
Forked tongue flickering.
Your long sleek body is grey with brown
Hourglass patterns.
As I approach you with a broom handle,
Primal fear arises from my belly.
I’ve read reports of your kind here in the ‘burbs
And pause to take a photo and check the Web.
The hourglass skin is your distinctive feature,
Confirming my fear.
The recommended approach:
Stand clear and let you leave.
Unique among venomous snakes,
You strike without warning,
Using sensitive heat sensors beneath your eyes
To detect movement.
Sobered, I stay clear for an hour.
Returning outside, I see no sign of you,
Though your acrid pissy smell
Pervades the patio for days.

John Bayerl

A Marriage Redeemed


Delight of Being


A Marriage Redeemed

I started out to write a review of Roland Merullo’s masterful and thoroughly enjoyable new novel, aptly named “The Delight of Being Ordinary – a Road Trip with the Pope and the Dalai Lama”.  I read it as my family book club’s latest selection and we had an engaging discussion about it just a few days ago.  I should also note that this was the third of Merullo’s novels that our book club read and discussed in the past year.

Reading over most of the reviews currently online, I decided to focus on one subplot that particularly engaged me.  For anyone looking for a traditional review of the book as a whole, I suggest one in the Kirkus Review:

… and another one, the first “Customer Review” by Kit Marlowe embedded in’s page for the book:

Besides Pope Francis and the Dalai Lama, the other two characters in the car on the 5-day Italian road-trip are Paolo and Rosa.  They are still legally married though they haven’t lived together for about many years.  Paolo is a younger cousin of the Pope who works as a personal assistant for the Pontiff in the Vatican.  The two were playmates as boys and the Pope insisted on hiring Paolo to his current position, knowing that his relative had been unemployed since his travel business went under.  Rosa is a fiery Neopolitana who started her own hairstyling business after their separation.  Unlike her husband, Rosa’s business has prospered beyond her wildest dreams with her salons spreading all over Italy.  Rosa is everything her husband is not – good-looking, aggressive, flamboyant, always looking for fun and adventure.  One reviewer has aptly compared her to the actress Sophia Loren.

The backstory is that the Argentine Jesuit Cardinal, Jorge Bergoglio, regularly visited Paolo and Rosa in Rome during his frequent visits to the Vatican on church business.  The future Pope was fond of them both and their beloved only child, Ana Lisa (now a young teacher living in the Adriatic coast city of Rimini.)

Rosa met Paolo while she was still a university student in Rome.  She walked into his travel agency one afternoon and they struck up a conversation that led to a date and a passionate courtship.  She dropped out of university to marry Paolo, falling for his suave, cosmopolitan, sometimes cynical demeanor but mostly for the fact that he appreciated her for more than her fantastic good looks.  Their daughter was a love child who both her parents continued to care for deeply.

The reasons for the couple’s falling out with one another becomes readily apparent as the unlikely four-some make their getaway from the Vatican’s considerable security apparatus.  Paolo was extremely reluctant to accept the Pope’s insistence that he find a way for him and his new friend, the visiting Dalai Lama, to abscond from the pomp of the Vatican for a few days.  Overwhelmed by his task, he calls Rosa to solicit her help.  Rosa immediately jumps at the challenge and the opportunity for fun and adventure.  She masterminds their escape in a friend’s Maserati after having her expert stylist and dresser concoct hilarious yet believable disguises for the Pontiff, the Tibetan holy man, and for Paolo.

The tension in the car between Paolo and Rosa leaks out at first, but soon becomes an ongoing back-and-forth of sarcastic one-upmanship. Rosa insists on driving the Maserati and Paolo chafes at her aggressive, erratic driving.  She brazenly tells the Pope that she and her daughter are no longer practicing Catholics and grills the Pontiff on what exactly being a Catholic means.

Rosa swung her eyes to me, once, quickly, then back to the road.  “What?’ she hissed.  “What, Paolo?  You’re giving me one of your looks.”

 I tried to hold the words in my mouth, but they pushed their way out, little puffs of old trouble singeing my lips as they escaped.  “You’re being borderline irreverent,” I said quietly.  “This is the Pope you’re speaking to about your problem with the Church!”

“Who else should I speak to about it?” she said, beneath the noise of the engine. “You?  Even now that he’s Pope, he likes to be treated like an ordinary human being, can’t you see that?”

“I think I know him a little better than you do.”

“You think you know everything a little better than I do.”

This underlying marital tension persists through most of the five days of the novel, abating somewhat after Rosa allows Paolo to take the wheel of the car.  There are also some sweet moments between them when they stop in Rimini, at the Pope’s suggestion, to visit their daughter.  Ana Lisa is a vibrant, attractive young woman who looks forward to seeing her parents despite the alarming news she’s been hearing of the Pope’s assumed abduction by his personal assistant – her Dad.  The disguised travelers have also heard these reports on the car radio, driving Paolo to near panic for his own implication.  They meet Ana Lisa on the beach at Rimini to avoid possible surveillance at her apartment.

Ana Lisa is excited at meeting the disguised dignitaries.  Though no longer a practicing Catholic, she has a deep interest in all things spiritual, especially Buddhism.  She takes the whole party to a meditation and dharma-talk that her boyfriend Piero is giving nearby.  The Pope, Dalai Lama and Rosa are all at ease sitting in silence with the meditators.  But Paolo fidgets and squirms throughout, offended by his daughter’s observation that he’s never been one to sit still.

At one point, Paolo shares directly with the reader about his wife:

I admired Rosa’s business sense, her work ethic, her unfailing optimism in the face of life’s many difficulties.  She’d been an absolutely spectacular mother – present, attentive, affectionate, supportive.  A loving partner in the bedroom.  A friend.  I thought she was beautiful, still; that she’d always been beautiful.  But almost from the hour we’d met, there had been places in which our personalities ground against each other like gears in a ruined transmission.  Fighting had become as regular as lovemaking, and then more regular.  In time, like some kind of cancer, it took over so many cells of our relationship that when Ana Lisa was out of the house and we were left alone with each other, the tension became unbearable.  To my last breath I will remember the night we sat down and, after talking for three and a half hours, decided we should try living separately.  The enormous sadness of that, the immense relief.  The bitter loneliness.

Together in the car for days on end, the tension returns along with the underlying love and admiration.  Their shared love for their daughter brings them together more strongly in Rimini.  And when Ana Lisa announces that she is pregnant and that she and Piero are lovers and planning to get married, the parents share their surprise and conflicted joy with one another.

From Rimini, the foursome drive north along the Adriatic before turning west into north-central Italy.  At one point they realize that they are following the path that the fallen dictator Mussolini had taken as he tried to escape the Italian partisans who were hunting him down.  Rosa had studied modern Italian history at the university and was particularly knowledgeable about the rise and fall of Il Duce.  She shared Paolo’s fierce anti-fascist political views.  One of Paolo’s uncles had died at the hands of the fascists, and his hometown on Lake Como was the very place that Mussolini had been assassinated.

Rosa has an old friend she met through her business, a wealthy, former movie star who owned a villa near Padua, along the route they were taking.  She calls him and garners an invitation for the four of them to spend the night.  Little do they know that their overnight stay comes with a requirement that they all attend the movie star’s extravagant costume party that he is hosting that evening.  The excess and decadence of the party offends the sensibilities of them all, including Rosa, who apologizes profusely for the ignominy she has put them through.  Paolo is taken aback by her apology, claiming it is the first time he’s heard an apology from her in all their marriage.  Rosa is so chagrined that she acknowledges other personal failures to Paolo as well.  Paolo softens to Rosa at that point and recalls the first time he had brought her north to visit his parents near Lake Como.  The bloom of love returns to his memories as he steers them through the exquisite scenery of that area, and north towards his hometown Mezzegra.

Without giving away too much, the foursome meets another travelling party in Mezzegra that has its own genuine spiritual avatars.  At this point the story is infused with a decidedly mystical aura that even the cynical Paolo is not immune to.  There is a magnificent 10-course Italian country dinner, served outdoors with a stupendous view of the lake.  At the end of the dinner, one of the guests, a beautiful and spiritually enlightened American woman, gently challenges both the Pope and the Dalai Lama regarding some of the impediments she sees in their traditional approaches to religion.  Paolo rushes to the Pope’s defense, in much the same way that he urged Rosa to tone down her anti-religious statements in the car earlier on the trip.  But this time something happens that stops Paulo in his tracks.  He hears himself spouting traditional Catholic doctrine and realizes that he is caught up in old, stagnant way of thinking and being.  When one of the child-avatars reveals that her 3-year old accomplice has removed the Pope’s and Dalai Lama’s prayer beads from their pockets, he witnesses the astounded expressions on both their faces.  Rosa breaks out into full-bodied laughter and Paolo joins her.  At that moment, something lifts in Paolo – an uptightness, a need to be right, a fearful caution at the prospect of anyone daring to challenge his beloved cousin.

That night, Paolo and Rosa have to share a sleeping space in a barn.  After sharing his own breakthrough in self-awareness, and his realization of how his fears have kept him small and cautious, Rosa shares her own deepest fear:  that she will live the rest of her life alone.  Paolo is surprised at this admission from his seemingly unflappable spouse.  From there, Rosa carries their reconciliation to a culmination:

“What would you say if I told you this trip feels like it was intended by God to bring us together again, Paolo?  I even think the Pope might have had that in mind all along.  Maybe all this was for us, too, amore…”

“I would say one of two things: either you’re completely crazy, or I’m getting a second chance.  A reincarnation without dying.”

She let go of my hand.  For a moment I thought she was angry because I’d mentioned reincarnation.  I heard her moving in the darkness, and then she said, “I’m disgusting and sweaty, but I’m taking off my underwear.  I want you to make love to me.  Now.  We’ll make peace between us.  It will be the start of making peace in the world.”

“I’m not sure I remember how to do it.”

“I’ll remind you,” Rosa said.

This redemption of Paolo and Rosa’s marriage resonated with me.  I suspect that many of us older married couples are familiar with some of the back-and-forth bickering that is the go-to place when even minor conflict arises.  Merullo obviously has a deep understanding of the kind of chronic verbal slights that poison many intimate relationships.  But he is no cynic.  The redemption process is believable because he has done such a thorough job of describing what led up to it.

There are many rewarding aspects of Merullo’s latest novel and I heartily recommend it.  This is the one that I value most.

John Bayerl

Film Review: “Beatriz at Dinner”

Beatriz at DinnerFilm Review: “Beatriz at Dinner”, written by Mike White, directed by Miguel Areta, starring Salma Hayek and John Lithgow

This beautifully shot film, set in the Los Angeles area, dramatically elucidates the social tension of our Trump era.  A Joan-of-Arc-like Salma Hayek plays Beatriz, a Mexican American massage therapist and cancer-healer.   She takes on a Trump-like real estate mogul, the aptly named, Doug Strutt (adroitly played by John Lithgow), at a small but lavish dinner party at a mansion high on a cliff over the Pacific ocean.  The verbal fireworks that ensue are breathtaking in their daring, funny and tragic at the same time, eliciting cavernous divides of class, ethnicity, and environmental values.

The film opens with Beatriz meditating at her altar in her funky bungalow where she lives alone, except for her beloved pet goats.  Salam Hayek brings a quiet dignity and spiritual seriousness to the character.  We see her begin her day patiently driving L.A.’s congested freeways to her job as a massage therapist/healer at an upscale, alternative cancer center.  She’s a respected and loved personage at the center, interacting with staff and patients in a caring, friendly manner, bringing a deep soothing and comfort to her cancer-wracked patients.

But something is troubling Beatriz that day.  She’s discovered one of her beloved goats slain outside her home by an irate neighbor.  Her emotional upset makes it more challenging for her to give her best in her healing work.  And her problematic old car adds to her worries.

After work, she travels the freeways again to reach the luxurious home of a wealthy massage client whose 15-year-old daughter she has worked with at the cancer center.  She arrives at the mansion late in the afternoon, just before an important dinner party that her client is giving that evening for the real estate mogul her husband works with.

The woman is more than a massage client to Beatriz and the two share a womanly camaraderie during the massage that is humanly endearing.  But when Beatriz’ car won’t start after the massage, a tension arises.  Her client is now impatient to get ready for her dinner party, and when Beatriz’ mechanic friend phones that he can’t come out until later that night, the woman casually invites her to stay for dinner, little realizing what an upset she has set in motion.

As the guests arrive, they regard Beatriz at first as one of the household staff.  She’s dressed simply, in stark contrast to the more formal attire of  the guests.  When the hostess introduces Beatriz as a talented healer who helped bring her daughter back to life after the rigors of cancer treatment, the guests politely acknowledge her, but go on with their private banter, leaving Beatriz to fend for herself.

Beatriz gains some courage after drinking some wine, and valiantly tries to join the dinner conversation.  Little does she know that this party is celebrating a major victory for Don Strutt and his colleagues who have just bamboozled the state legislature into allowing an upscale shopping mall to be built on environmentally sensitive land along the coast.  Beatriz apologizes for her conversational lapses at dinner, yet, fueled by the wine, continues to launch into long soliloquies about holistic healing, environmental consciousness, and her spiritual beliefs about fate and destiny.

At one point, Don Strutt grills her on her immigration status, to the discomfort of his more politically correct friends.  This is the opening salvo for an ensuing duel of words and ideas that completely hijacks the party.

“Beatriz at Dinner” is often uncomfortable to watch as it shines a spotlight on some of the most divisive areas of our current political/economic/environmental fracture.  It’s a daring film in that it doesn’t offer any easy solutions, and its ending is downright unsettling.

Salma Hayek and John Lithgow are both riveting as the tension of their conflict builds to a climax.  The supporting caste serve as a kind of Greek chorus, witnessing the drama and desperately counseling calm and appeasement.  I left the film disturbed by the ending, yet grateful that such an artful film had dared to take on some of the fundamental clashes that the Trump presidency has unearthed.

John Bayerl

Remembering Dad


Joseph Bayerl

Joseph John Bayerl, 1914-1989

Happy Father’s Day to all the fathers today!

I’m remembering my own Dad and the many gifts he offered, only a few of which I was able to appreciate while he was alive.  But I’ve learned since to take in better his life of service to family, community and country.

As a father of ten, five boys, five girls, he retained a joy and appreciation of young children right to the end.  He encouraged all his sons in sports and academics, attending our games and rooting us on.  He was a loyal husband for the last 47 years of his life, a reliable provider who often worked multiple jobs to keep us housed, clothed, fed and more. When my brothers and I got paper routes, he even pitched in to help us deliver the heavy Sunday papers with the aid of his car.

He served his community as a professional firefighter, advancing through the municipal civil service to many promotions, culminating in a position of chief dispatcher. He was a regular church-goer and contributed his time and energy to many of our school functions as well.

He served his country by enlisting in the U.S. Army prior to Pearl Harbor, advancing to Sergeant in the artillery before shipping off to three years of combat in North Africa, Sicily and Italy.  Upon his return, he became an active member, and officer, in the local American Legion.

Thank you, Dad, for all your selfless service and devotion which, despite your human faults, make up the overriding story of your life.


Yucatan means “place of riches” in Aztec and our sojourn there in late May certainly bore that out.  My wife and I had been invited to a Mexican wedding in Cancun and decided to make a week of it.  On previous visits to Mexico, we’d met some people affiliated with our spiritual community who lived on the Yucatan peninsula. We were hoping to have some personal guides to the land most associated with the ancient Mayan civilization.  We were also looking forward to the wedding, and to spending a few days on the beach at a popular offshore island, Isla Mujeres.

We arrived from our early morning flight at the large international airport south of Cancun city.  The mid-day heat and humidity quickly reminded us that we were in the tropics.  Andrea’s proficiency in Spanish had helped us to clear Mexican customs, exchange some dollars for pesos, and find the place to purchase bus tickets.  Our initial destination was the old colonial town Valladolid, about 75 miles inland, and near the major Mayan ruins at Chichen Itza.  But we’d first have to bus from the airport to the main bus terminal in downtown Cancun.

Cancun is a bustling, mid-sized Mexican city of over 600,000 permanent residents.  The city’s population has quadrupled since 1990 when the tourist industry really began to take off.  Almost all the resort hotels occupy a stretch of ocean-front beach on a long, narrow peninsula that juts out into the Caribbean.  That area is known as the “Zona Hotelera” and we never set foot there.  The bus ride in and out of Cancun Centro helped give us a sense of the layout and major landmarks of the city proper.

Mexican intercity buses are generally clean, well-maintained, air-conditioned, and on time.  That was certainly the case with our trip to Valladolid and back, three days later.   After a slow drive through some urban sprawl, the main highway west then runs straight as an arrow with very little traffic.  The landscape consisted mostly of scrub forest and the occasional farm and small settlement.  After about two hours, we pulled off the highway and onto the roads leading into the main plaza of Valladolid.  A concert was in progress there and we regretted we couldn’t stay for it.  A taxi driver greeted us as we exited the bus station and drove us and our luggage the mile or so to the Casa Quetzal where we’d spend the next three nights.


Casa Quetzal, Valladolid

The Casa Quetzal is a charming 5-room, single-story guest house with the rooms surrounding a central courtyard.  The courtyard contains a shapely pool of light-green water over which large tropical trees, bushes and other flowering plants extend and hang.   Our large room was on the street side with a door that opened to the courtyard and its little walking paths.  We were immediately taken with it, and grateful for the efficient AC against the 90+ temperatures.


After a brief rest and shower, our appetite led us out in search of an evening meal.  The kind Mayan-looking woman at the desk who’d registered us gave suggestions for some restaurants we could easily reach on foot.  Directly across the street from our Casa was the convent of San Bernardino of Siena, dating back to the era of the town’s founding in 1540.  The soft evening light reflecting off the masonry walls of the convent bathed us in its soft pink hues.  We found a charming little outdoor restaurant, “The Garden of the Friars”, not far from the convent.  It would be the first of many memorable Mexican meals.


After a good night’s sleep, we arose for the breakfast included with our room.  There was a small dining room on the other side of the courtyard, as well as some small tables brought outside.  The Casa’s proprietor, Judith Fernandez, greeted us warmly.  We had met “Abuela (Grandmother) Judith” some years earlier near Mexico City and were happy to resume a budding friendship.  She inquired after our trip so far and urged us to consider visiting a well-known native art collection in a private home near the main plaza.  She also recommended that we take our bathing suits and walk over to swim in a cenote when we had completed our art tour.  We affirmed our interest and she immediately instructed one of her staff to drive us to the plaza for the daily 10am tour of the art collection.
The House of the Deer

La Casa de los Venados is an unassuming structure from the outside.  But stepping inside is to enter room after room of nouveau-colonial architectural splendor holding a treasure of mostly contemporary Mexican art.  This private home is owned by an American couple who invested considerable time and resources to make it a first-rate gallery, as well as their home   There’s a suggested donation of 100 pesos (about $6) for the daily tour, with all proceeds going to local charities.


            The guide for our group of about 20 was a young local man with good English, and a deep knowledge of the history of the house (centuries old) and the art in it.  Abuela Judith had told us about the four small colleges in Valladolid, one of them specifically training Mayan students in their language, history, English, and the art of offering tours.

The tour lasts about an hour, which is not enough time to take in the wealth of the collection, which includes large murals, wood and metal sculpture, artistic furniture, and numerous paintings and folk-art artifacts.  Many of us take photographs of the art as we pass through.

Five Women

When we exit the house, the fierce heat is full upon us and we cross the large central plaza to find a corner café.  Over our second café con leche of the morning, we plot our walking path to the nearby Cenote Zaci.



Cenotes (pronounced say-no-tays) are underground pools of deep, fresh water that are contained within large, cave-like depressions, like sinkholes.  They are lighted from above via holes of varying sizes creating interesting and often mysterious plays of light on the rocks and the water.

The Yucatan is dotted with hundreds of these cenotes which are part of the larger aquifer on which the whole peninsula sits.  Andrea and I have read about them and are anxious to see one.  We’ve toted bathing suits and towels with us to fully submerge in the experience.

It takes some asking for us to find Cenote Zaci but we’re soon upon it.  We pay our 30-peso ($2.50) entrance fee and find the changing rooms.  As we take the stone stairway down into the gorge, the breadth and beauty of the place engulf us.  Three or four people are swimming below and we’re eager to cool down ourselves.


Descending into the cold, clear water is amazingly refreshing.  Andrea and I are finding ourselves compromised by our age with a diminishing ability to withstand high temperatures and humidity such as we’ve experienced the past two days.  Swimming in the cenote revives us, the natural beauty of the place as well as the cooler air temperature and downright cold water.  We emerge feeling alive, awake and very happy to be with one another in this special place.

Our cenote story continues the following day on our return from Chichen Itza.  We’re both sweaty and fatigued when we arrive at another public cenote in the town of Dzitnup.  This one is a little more commercialized, with vendors and food offerings lining the footpath to the cave.  But when we finally start descending into the dark, another grand, natural cave mansion opens before us.  I put on my swimming goggles this time to better view the many fish that inhabit the waters of this and most other cenotes.  The cenote magic works again and within half an hour we are both transformed into happy, vigorous old folks.

The last cenote we visited was on the morning of our departure from Valladolid.  A young woman friend of Abuela Judith had offered to take us to her favorite cenote about fifteen miles out of town.  After we packed our bags and secured our bus tickets back to Cancun for later that day, our new friend Chio drove us over back roads where the only people we saw looked decidedly Mayan.  She told us that she visited this cenote a few times per week to relax, meditate and pray.  She also said it was used by the local Mayan people for special rituals and ceremonies.

The Mayan cenote was not overtly commercialized like the other two.  We descended via a spiral staircase deeper and deeper into the dark.  A Mayan girl 6 or 7 years old led us down with a flashlight.  This was the deepest cave of the three, and the most beautiful and mysterious.  After swimming around the pool, Chio led us to a sand bar where we could stand out of the water.  The silence was awesome.  At one point, we watched a pail being dropped down into the pool by a rope, the pail submerged and then lifted to the surface hole at least 100 feet above.  I felt myself in a zen-like state of simple but profound awareness.



Chichen Itza

Our friend Judith generously offered to lend us her car for the 30-mile drive to the legendary ruins of one of the largest Mayan cities.  She urged us to go immediately after breakfast to avoid the crowds and the full heat of the day.  I had spent the previous afternoon relaxing in the courtyard, reading up on this archeological marvel via Wikipedia.  Judith had also lent us two pictorial guides to the ruins which helped me get oriented.

The Mayan name Chichen Itza translates as “at the mouth of the well of the Itza people”.  The city was built over a large aquifer with a deep cenote now known as the “Sacred Cenote”.  Like the town of Valladolid, this ancient city was built at a place where the inhabitants were guaranteed a dependable source of fresh water.

Chichen Itza is now an active center of the Mexican tourist industry.  Even at 10am the parking lot was filing up with buses, vans, taxis and private cars like ours.  Vendors of all stripes lined the road in, actively hawking their wares.  We found a parking spot, lathered up with sunscreen, and set out to the large, modern entrance building to buy tickets and enter the site.

The centerpiece of the ancient city is an intact pyramid rising almost 120 feet.  The Mayans called it the Temple of Kukulkan, one of their principal gods, represented as a feathered serpent, similar to the Aztec’s Quetzal Coatl.  The pyramid/temple dates from AD 800-900, known as the Terminal Classic period of Mayan civilization.


The stone edifices surrounding the pyramid are in varying states of disrepair.  Archeologists have been examining the site for over a century and a great deal of information about Mayan government, science, culture and religion has been derived from the study of artifacts uncovered in this major center of pre-Columbian civilization.



A Mexican Wedding

The initial impetus for our journey was a wedding invitation from a Mexican friend of Andrea’s who lives in Cancun.  We’d reserved a hotel room there for the weekend and were really looking forward to the event, having experienced an unforgettable wedding in Guanauato some years previous.

This one did not disappoint.  The reception was to be held outdoors and I was a bit concerned about wearing formal attire in the tropical heat.  Our Mexican friends had the perfect solution – purchase a guayabera, a traditional white linen Mexican-made shirt.  While in Valladolid, we found a small shop that had just what I needed – a formal (long sleeve) “presidential” guayabera.  Andrea had shopped for her lovely dress back in the DC area and Abuela Judith had given her an approving thumbs-up.

The wedding ritual was performed in a modern Catholic church in the wealthy suburbs of Cancun.  Our friends in Valladolid were attending, since both bride and groom were members of our spiritual community.  We all sat together in church as I strained a bit to follow the proceedings in Spanish.  It was a traditional Catholic wedding with Mass, a sermon, and communion.  After their vows were exchanged, the happy couple knelt in prayer before a large painting of Our Lady of Guadalupe that graced one side of the altar.


The reception took place in a well-appointed suburban country club nearby.  Three hundred guests attended this classy affair, with delicious seafood canapes and wine proffered as we entered the grounds.  It was a magical evening filled with camaraderie, delicious food, and vigorous dancing on a glass dance floor lit with colored lights from below.


Isla Mujeres

Our hotel in Cancun proper was not near a beach, but offered a wonderful rooftop swimming pool that we made good use of on both days of our stay.  Once again, clean, cold water was our savior from the heat and humidity.  After a final dip on Sunday morning, we re-packed and caught a cab to nearby Puerto Juarez where we would get our ferry to Isla Mujeres.


Isla Mujeres (“Women Island”) was so named by the Spanish invaders who found a plethora of sculptures representing Mayan goddesses, especially of Ixchel, goddess of fertility and childbirth.  The Island is a thin patch of land about 4 miles long that lies about 8 miles off the coast of Cancun.  Puerto Juarez had an efficient ferry service with modern, passenger-only boats carrying up to about 150 people every half hour throughout the day.

We enjoyed the half-hour boat ride, sitting out on the top deck, serenaded by a talented Mexican folk singer.  It was our first real contact this trip with the warm, aqua-green waters of the Caribbean.

We had reservations for three nights at a small beach hotel on the Caribbean side of the island.  On checking in, I was surprised when the hotel clerk presented me with a handwritten note from an old friend who was staying with his wife in another nearby hotel.  We’d known they’d been planning a trip here but didn’t know the dates.  After we got settled in our room, I walked over to my friends’ place and caught them just as they were heading out on a food shopping trip.  We celebrated our good fortune at connecting and arranged to have supper together that evening.

playa media luna-1

Our three-day stay at Playa Media Luna (“Half Moon Beach”) was a perfect ending to our trip.  We had time to rest, read, swim in the seaside pool or a nearby tidal lagoon, have meals with our friends, and shop for gifts.  A highlight was our visit to the southern end of the island with our friends one clear, sunny morning.  The remains of a temple to Ixchel are still there, memorialized now by a modern sculpture park as well.


We had an uneventful leave-taking and arrived back home tired but happy.  Yucatan had lived up to its Aztec name.



John Bayerl,  Derwood, MD


Gaithersburg Book Festival 2017

Gaithersburg Book Festival (GBF),  Saturday May 20, 2017

The GBF is a tribal festival for those who love good books and who also love to share their passion with others.  The 100 or so invited authors ground the day in focused readings, presentations, and dialog with attendees.  The Politics and Prose enterprise from DC uses a big tent as a bookstore devoted to the specific books being presented by their creators that day.  It’s a great pleasure to purchase a book there after an author’s presentation, and then meet and talk with the author in a designated book-signing area.

This was my third year in a row attending this one-day celebration of contemporary authors and their readers. Two of my sisters drove all day Friday from western New York state to attend the festival and enjoy a comfortable weekend of family companionship with my spouse and me at our home in neighboring Derwood. They had ventured down for this occasion two years ago as well. Our ongoing involvement since then in our family book group was keeping our shared love of reading alive and well.

The experience of the GBF is akin to attending a summertime “Chautauqua” — an old-fashioned fair-like environment in which the lead attractions are current writers and their latest books.  Within this rich, creative environment, human encounters occur, discussions are entered into, and new ways of thinking and experiencing are articulated and shared.

I’m going to share a subjective account of my experience of the 2017 GBF. By way of disclosure, I’m a 67-year-old recent retiree who has taken up creative writing as a hobby.  My youngest sister, Anna, is a devoted teacher and librarian at a public grade school, and my middle sister, Marian, is a working mother who is about to retire from a career in accounting and finance.  Our family book group, conducted monthly via conference call, has brought us together in deep and beautiful ways over the past year.


Not the Cleaver Family

The three of us have each studied the Author Presentation Schedulefrom the professionally rendered GBF website.  The schedule is a full-page 10X8 grid of locations, authors, and start-times.  Our first destination is the James Michener Pavilion, consisting of a large white tent, open at the sides and front, with a speaker’s table and dais at the far end and with metal folding chairs arranged in neat rows from the entrance.  It’s just after 10 AM and a short, vivacious, middle-aged, brown-skinned woman is enthusiastically speaking about her current family life in the upscale Chevy Chase suburb of Washington, DC.

Her name is Maria Olsen and she is a “mixed race” (Filipina/Irish) mother of two Anglo-looking children.  She’s a lawyer as well an author, and also hosts a weekly FM radio show on her special topic — the radically changing demographics of the American family.  She shares personally, and painfully, about how often she is mistaken for her children’s nanny, or hired housekeeper.  She says that the challenge of being “other” is what drove her to a deeper investigation of what she calls the “beige-ing” of America.  The fruition of her work is her short, illustrated book, “Not the Cleaver Family — the New Normal in Modern American Families”.

Ms. Olsen is a dynamic, well-organized speaker and uses her half-hour to positive effect.  She speaks not only of the growing ethnic and racial mixing in families, but also of single-parent families, families led by same sex couples, the growing number of “singleton” (one child) families, and families who adopt or sponsor foster children.  She goes beyond espousing tolerance to positively endorse the rich, variegated, human environments that we are creating within this large multi-ethnic, multi-racial, multi-cultural, multi-sexual society.  She speaks with the authority of incontrovertible demographics:  in 20013, white children under 5 years old were a minority among all American 5-year-olds; by 2043, less than 50 percent of the US population will be white.

My sisters and I are taken in by this warm, smiling, intelligent woman.  My wife and I, both white, adopted Afro-Brazilian children in 1998 so this territory is already familiar to us.  We have family members and close friends who also occupy some of the “other” demographics Ms. Olsen describes.  “Leave It to Beaver” was a favorite childhood TV show for us in the 1960’s, even though our gritty working-class family life was a far cry from that of the Cleaver family on TV even then.  I leave the tent inspired by this unabashedly enthusiastic affirmation that the rich diversity of American families will continue to grow and prosper despite temporary, reactionary, fear-based attempts to ostracize and demonize “the other”.


The Good at Heart

The second author we visit is a German-born woman, Ursula Werner, a local lawyer and published poet, who has just written her first novel, “The Good at Heart”.  The title comes from Anne Frank’s diary, in which the Nazi-persecuted and pursued Jewish girl writes: “In spite of everything I still believe that people are really good at heart.”

My sibs and I are children of a 2nd generation German-American father who was a sergeant in the American army fighting the Germans in northern Africa, Sicily, and Italy during World War II.  We had many uncles and family friends who were also WW2 veterans, and our parents met at an American Legion social event in Buffalo, NY, right after the war.  War stories and lore were the lingua franca of many of our family gatherings.  Two of the books we had read together in our book club this past year — “The Boys in the Boat”, and “The Nightingale” — one non-fiction, the other a novel — were set within the wrenching history of that horrible bloodbath.  How could we not be drawn to a new novel that dealt with the author’s own German family living through that conflict as subjects of the Fuhrer?

Ms. Werner was given an eloquent introduction by a young lawyer colleague and friend, a Jewish man who testified to his friend’s deep passion for human rights.  Born in Germany, she grew up in Florida.  She maintains a relationship with her family in Germany and visits there often.  She had long been curious about her great-grandfather who was an economist who had served in the government of the Weimar republic and subsequently as an assistant cabinet member in the Nazi government.  He had been arrested by the Allies after the war but was acquitted at his trial.  No one in Ms. Werner’s family was willing to speak much about this great-grandfather and Ms. Werner herself feared the worst — that he had been an ardent Nazi.  But she persisted in her attempts to get her German family to share more information and finally, one of her cousins steered her towards a box of old documents in her Hamburg basement.  Those documents proved to be the legal papers in which her great-grandfather and his lawyer made a credible case for his having kept himself apart from the worst excesses of the Nazi atrocities.

Ms. Werner has used that basic information to construct what sounds to be a highly riveting novel.  She read from a chapter in which Franz, a son-in-law and career soldier, is part of Germany’s 1939 invasion of Poland.  Until that point, Franz has sworn allegiance to the Nazis and their call to revive German nationalism.  The brutal excesses of the Polish invasion sicken Franz and he begins turning against the Nazis, eventually joining one of the anti-Nazi resistance cells that actively plot assassination of Nazi leaders.

Having recently watched the classic film “Judgment at Nuremburg” for the third time, I had concluded that no German officials of the Nazi era were wholly innocent of the atrocities committed by the government, SS, and army.  Ms. Werner was making a case that there were many shades of gray, and that it was worth taking a deeper, harder look at the historical records.  She believes in the importance of knowing the worst of what occurred, but also of investigating those incidents in which many brave Germans attempted to thwart the monstrosities of the state.

At the end of her presentation, my sisters and I looked at one another in unspoken agreement that we definitely had a candidate for our book group.  I rushed over to buy a copy of the novel and got in line at her signing table afterwards.  I congratulated Ms. Werner on publishing her work and told her a little about our book group.  After carefully inscribing my copy, she looked at me and said that she would be happy to speak on our conference call meeting if we chose her book.  I felt a kinship with her in that moment and shared her offer with my sisters.  They had already purchased the book themselves.



The last author event we attended had an interview format.  Hannah Lilith Assadi is a young, pretty, articulate graduate of Columbia University’s MFA program in Creative Writing.  She recently published her first novel, “Sonora”, loosely based on her own life growing up near the Sonora desert in Arizona, the daughter of a Palestinian father and an Israeli Jewish mother. She was interviewed by the Armenian-American writer, Garine Isassi, who had read “Sonora” and had many engaging questions for Ms. Assadi.

Author and interviewer established an immediate rapport from their shared sense of growing up as “the other”.  Most of Ms. Assadi’s Arizona schoolmates and family friends were white Americans, with little previous contact with either Jewish or Arabic people.  Ms. Isassi’s family were the only Armenians in their small Texas town.  Both women spoke of their confusing attempts to gain a sense of identity and place within communities which largely held them as invisible at best.

Ms. Assadi read from “Sonora” and transported us to the hot, dry, windy domain of the Southwest desert where her taxi-driving father would often take her to find a sense of home. The young heroine began having bizarre visions and nightmares from these desert forays.  One of her classmates is an Apache girl who shares her feeling of being an outsider.  They strike up a close friendship that culminates in both setting out for New York to seek their fortune as creative artists.

The interviewing format worked superbly for this presentation.  I appreciated the genuine affection and interest that Ms. Isassi exhibited to her younger colleague.  At the end, Ms. Assadi shared her own deep scholarship and love of contemporary Middle Eastern poetry — Arabic and Jewish.  My sisters and I were taken with the rich, evocative prose-poetry of “Sonora”, and even more so by the opportunity to hear both women speak so openly and honestly about their struggles to claim their identities as authors.



Another highlight of this year’s GBF for me was connecting with other writer friends. I’m a member of the Maryland Writers’ Association (MWA) and enjoy hanging out at our organization’s table on the festival grounds. I had an inspiring connection there with Randall Luce, a local author who has written a series of mystery novels set in the Mississippi delta.  I’d met Randy at previous MWA meetings and admired his soulful expressiveness and rich facility with language.  At the MWA table, I had a chance to hear about the inspiration for his Mississippi novels – the years he had spent living there as an anthropology graduate student, working on his dissertation about the local history and culture.

I also connected with my writing buddy Mark and enjoyed a picnic lunch with him.  We shared a table with a man my age who was reading that day’s Washington Post.  The three of us had a lively discussion about the current political circus in town.

I drove home with Anna and Marian late that afternoon tired but happy.  The three of us were bubbling over with stories about what we had seen and heard.  The Gaithersburg Book Festival had exceeded our expectations once again.

John Bayerl, Derwood, MD