Archive for May, 2011

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A LETTER TO COUSIN NICK

May 18, 2011

Dear Nick,

I waited a few months to write this because I wanted to allow time for some healing. I think about you often and the impression you left on so many lives. I think about your wife, Karen, and your two children, Kallie and Jimmy, about your mom, Theo, and your sister, Denise. But this letter is not to them, it’s to you.

I’ll start by recalling a quick phone conversation we had once in 2008, realizing that this was so typical of our usual call-to-action: lunch.

“Hi Mike, cousin Nick.”

“Hey Nick, what’s up?”

“Wondered if you were going to be around today?”

“Not really, man. I’m at the rally downtown.”

“John McCain’s?”

“Not hardly.”

“Oh, okay. I’ll call you sometime next week.”

“Lunch?”

“Sounds good.”

I don’t know if you were kidding when you said “John McCain’s?” but I smiled anyway. You’re sense of humor saw no bounds, manifesting itself in virtually every conversation or situation.

Although we were just cousins, we were also very good friends and in the last several years, you felt like a brother to me. As children, our parents saw to it that we cousins were around each other often. As adults, we didn’t see nearly as much of one another for the obvious reasons: we began families of our own with some of us moving to a different city or state. But after your brief stay in California and my travels as an entertainer, we finally settled down back in our home town and slowly started reconnecting.

You and I were raised in very different environments. Your upbringing was far stricter than mine, which was fairly relaxed. Your dad was always telling my mom how she was being too easy on me. What was she thinking, letting me play in a band? I don’t think he ever understood.

Over the last 15 years or so, we spent many-a-lunch discussing our parents, our siblings and most of all, our own families. We also discussed politics (yours more conservative than mine), religion (different paths, same destination), and our extended families. We ended each lunch with a handshake and a smile, vowing to “do it again soon.” And we did.

At some of those lunches, we talked about your son Jimmy and my son Kenny. They were in their teenage years. You and I were experiencing the typical teenage “issues” with them. When I finally realized that for me, these issues were mostly mine and not Kenny’s, you were surprised by my confession. A few weeks before you passed, you told me that you had let go of your deep-rooted ideas about fatherhood – wanting only that your children be true to themselves first and foremost – and not to be concerned with what they think you (or anybody else) might want them to be. In your words, you “broke the cycle.”

It seemed that your passion for music, which was put on hold for so many years, was somewhat resurrected later in your life. And although our tastes were not very similar, we enjoyed each others’ talents. In the 80s, you managed to break away a couple of times to record some drum tracks in the studio, saving me from having to program my antiquated drum machine. I know you remember the instrumental in 1984, but even I forgot about the time you joined my sister (singing), her husband (on guitar) and me on a tune in 1986. You were far more talented than you realized, but when I said that, you made some self-deprecating joke about it. I wasn’t “blowin’ smoke” cous – you played well.

But the shocker for me (and everyone else in the room) was the night you got up and sang “It’s Now or Never,” the old Elvis tune, at my mother’s 70th birthday, with your mother standing right next to you. After all these years, I had no idea you could sing – really sing!

I know why you didn’t take me up on my offer to join Reflection, back in 1979. You didn’t want to disappoint your parents  – a scenario that is all-too-common with people of our generation. Personally, I believe the  musical desire of your heart was never fully realized. There were a few occasions where it did shine through. Two that come to mind immediately were when you took time away from your day gig (which I know you did not enjoy but maintained to please your father) to put together an Elvis show for fundraisers at your church. You brought down the house, brotha!

You were always so selfless, putting everyone else’s needs way ahead of your own. I often wonder how different your life might have been had you chosen to be just a little selfish with your time. I can’t help but feel you might still be entertaining us mere mortals. 

My hope and prayer is that those closest to you have learned at least one thing from your brief 56 years on this earth: that it’s just as important to feed your soul as it is to feed your family and help others around you. I know many understand this but I also know there are some that don’t.

Case in point: at your viewing, standing not more than fifty feet from your coffin, I overheard one of our relatives lecturing another relative. “You need to make sure your finances are taken care of before you get involved with frivolous activities that are non-productive,” he said. “There will be plenty of time for that stuff after the kids are grown and your stock portfolio is ‘healthy’.” Sadly, it may be a while before he “gets it,” Nick.

In closing, I want you to know that because of you I’m a better person and I really miss our call-to-action lunches. 🙂 Most importantly, I will never forget what your presence in my life did for me.

Sincerely,

www.MichaelKontras.com

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ARE WE DONE NOW?

May 5, 2011

Eight years ago to the day, then President George W. Bush announced “Mission Accomplished.”

It wasn’t.

Sunday, May 1, 2011, our current president did no such thing. But he did announce that a covert military operation ended the life of Osama bin Ladin. For nearly all  Americans, this was the real “Mission Accomplished.” People took to the streets in celebration almost immediately after hearing the news.

This does very little to change the current terrorist landscape. However, we have now accomplished the goal that we set when we invaded Afghanistan: to bring to justice those who perpetrated the 9-11 attacks. Al-Qaida is no longer the top-down, heavily-armed and well-financed organization that it was a decade ago. It has been fractured into small groups throughout the world – sometimes with not more than one or two members per group. And now, their leader is gone.

Militarily, President Obama scored a huge success with the death of bin Ladin. Leon Panetta, the head of the CIA, and the Navy Seals team that handled the mission did a remarkable job.

For those who lost loved ones on September 11, 2001, there will be some closure and personally, I couldn’t be happier that bin Ladin is out of the picture. But it’s a hollow victory for me. We’ve sacrificed so much blood and treasure over these last nine years that his demise seems far less significant by comparison.

Politically, this event resulted in a boost in the president’s poll numbers. He succeeded where his two predecessors failed. Although, with all the domestic issues that need attention: 8.5% unemployment, stupid-high gas prices, a crumbling infrastructure and increasingly higher food costs, the rise in his popularity will probably be short-lived. As a country, we need to re-think our military strategies. Our “enemies” are not other countries anymore. We do not need huge military forces stationed around the world in order to keep the peace. Small, well-trained forces on the ground like “Seal Team 6” appear to be far more effective. (They executed this operation with incredible precision and not one team member was injured, much less killed.) Plus, so much more can be done from the air than ever before that large numbers of ground troops are not necessary.

The world has become “smaller” and more transparent, especially since 9-11. The human desire to be free is starting to re-shape the Middle East with uprisings in many areas. We can be the beacon of peace in the world by not engaging in warfare and not sticking our foreign policy “nose” where it doesn’t belong. Through the unfiltered lens of the internet, people around the globe can witness life in a free society. What they do with that information is up to them, not us.

So… are we done now?

With 24 people and 40 minutes, we succeeded where nearly ten years, thousands of soldiers lost, tens of thousands of soldiers injured, hundreds of thousands of innocent people killed, and well over a trillion dollars spent, did not.

Can we please end these senseless wars?

Sincerely,

www.MichaelKontras.com