"His polished, sometimes even poetic prose evokes a sense of curiosity and lament. In response to his family’s silence—and to the silence of a whole people still shellshocked by their grim treatment—Kalajian has become a professional storyteller and an excellent one at that." Kirkus Reviews

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Every time I open my eyes, I'm reminded how lucky I am that I can still see what bothers me

Many Armenians accept blindness as inevitable.
The Armenian EyeCare Project is trying to change that.
I got my first pair of eyeglasses soon after starting school, when it became apparent that I couldn’t make out the letters on the blackboard.

My near-sightedness worsened as time went on, and eventually I needed glasses not only to see across a room but to walk across one. I took it in stride when I was young, and even when I was not so young.

I was happy as long as I could see. If glasses made me look serious and bookish—good! I thought they suited a journalist’s image just fine.

I took comfort in the assurance of every doctor I’d seen that my eyes were healthy. I didn’t need a doctor to tell me when that was no longer the case because I could see for myself.

I was helping our daughter move into her college dorm in the summer of 1999 when I looked up into the sunlight and saw what looked like black snow falling. In my native New Jersey, I’d have shrugged it off as soot from a factory. In Tampa, Florida, this was no shrugging matter.

I should have gone straight to a doctor, but I told myself the problem was eye strain. All through the four-hour drive home, I kept seeing lightning-like flashes in my left eye. I blamed the reflection of headlights in the side mirror, but the flashes continued when I got home.

The eye doctor who examined me the next day diagnosed a PVD (posterior vitreous detachment), a common event for the near-sighted in middle age. It means the squishy middle of the eye (the vitreous) has shrunk and pulled away from the retina. If the vitreous is a bit sticky, it pulls some fibers along with it. You’ll see a few sparks and some bits of debris floating through your field of vision.

It’s not a big deal, except when it is.

Usually, PVDs require no treatment but my sticky vitreous yanked hard enough to tear a tiny hole in the retina, the crucial light-sensitive layer at the back of the eye. The blood and tissue that spewed from the tear is what looked like black snow. Those lightning flashes were the retina’s way of shouting, “Ouch!”

Despite my delay, I reached a retina surgeon quickly enough to prevent further damage. He used a laser to stop the bleeding. It was a good rehearsal for both of us: six weeks later, the same thing happened to my right eye.

Left untreated, my retinas might have continued tearing and even detached. The consequences of such complications, including vision loss, can be permanent.

Trust me on this: If you see flashes and floaters, get examined right away.

The most serious consequence of my PVDs so far is a swirling profusion of permanent floaters in both eyes. The effect is a lot like looking at the world through a dirty fish tank.

In the long term, I’ll have to be alert for further retinal deterioration but for now I can still see and I can still read—although, large type helps because those damned floaters tend to settle in the curves and valleys of small letters until each sentence looks like one wriggling smudge.

These distractions are a small inconvenience but they’re a powerful reminder that I’m lucky to live in a place where laser-wielding retina surgeons are a cell-phone-call away. I often wonder how well I’d be able to see, or whether I could see at all, if I lived somewhere else.

I think of Armenia, for obvious reasons.

That poor and tiny country wobbled into independence in 1991 just a few years after a devastating earthquake, and it quickly plunged into war with neighboring Azerbaijan. Among the tragic consequences of both events was a spiraling increase in blindness, particularly among children.

Dr. Roger Ohanesian, a California ophthalmologist, responded by founding the nonprofit Armenian EyeCare Project (AECP) in 1992. The organization has been ferrying American eye doctors and surgeons to Armenia since then, reaching hundreds of thousands with its mobile hospital. 

Now the AECP is joining the Armenian government in building five regional eye-care clinics, and it's looking for support.

These clinics are a necessity because the situation remains dire. According to the AECP, “the accessibility and affordability of eye care in Armenia continues to be extremely limited and disproportionately affects the poor and those living in remote regions. Just four towns outside of Yerevan provide basic eye care and most surgery is available only in the capital.”

The cost and hardships mean that many go without vital care. I was stunned to learn from the AECP’s literature that cataracts are the country's leading cause of blindness, affecting nearly a third of all Armenians over 65.

Cataract surgery is common in America, but it’s available to only one in four Armenians who need it. As a result, “Armenians have learned to accept blindness as part of growing older . . .”


How sad is that? 

I get a hundred reminders of my good fortune each time I open my eyes. It's good to know someone is working to bring that same good fortune to people who so desperately need it.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Reasons to celebrate: Two stories about Armenians, and they both end happily

The original Men of Granite, the 1940 Granite City basketball team
I have a deal with my friend Stuart Alson, an independent movie distributor, producer and film-festival impresario: I write stories for his magazine, and he introduces me to interesting people in the film industry.

He’s always on high alert for Armenians, and that’s how I met Valerie McCaffrey—at least by telephone.

McCaffrey is well known as one of Hollywood’s top casting directors. She’s a bit less well known as an Armenian from Fresno, California, and our conversation convinced me that really needs to change.

The main topic of our chat was the film comedy Lost and Found in Armenia, which McCaffrey produced along with Maral Djerejian. It debuted in America last year but it’s about to get even wider international distribution through Stuart’s company.

I’d heard good things about the film, but my wife and I didn’t have a chance to see for ourselves until it popped up on Netflix recently. I recommend it highly by the only standard I ever apply to a comedy: I laughed.

Jamie Kennedy plays an American vacationer who drops in (quite literally) on an Armenian village. He is mistaken for a spy and interrogated in a language he can’t identify much less understand.

It’s a sure-fire setup, as the misunderstandings multiply. At its core, Lost and Found in Armenia is a simple fish out of water story, which is appropriate for a landlocked country. But nothing is quite so simple in Armenia.

Amid the humor, the audience gets a feel for the anxieties of a people whose history of turmoil and foreign conflict is contemporary as well as ancient. A scene later in the film makes it clear the villagers’ fears of incursion are not mere paranoia.

In all, Lost and Found in Armenia presents Armenians as real human beings in a real place, and it leaves the audience smiling. It’s a big plus for a country that gets little notice except in connection with controversy or tragedy.

McCaffrey had been to Armenia before but this extended stay made a deep impression. In village after village, families living in the humblest homes without so much as indoor plumbing insisted on sharing their bread, as well as their home-made vodka.

“We really should be more like these people,” she said. “They appreciate human life and relationships, and they love each other. I teared up at the end.”

Her next project isn’t an Armenian film, but it has some powerful Armenian elements.

Men of Granite tells the real-life story of a high school basketball team from Granite City, Illinois, a steel-mill town crowded with immigrants from Eastern Europe.

Just making the team was a triumph for these young men. Their parents may have been good enough to stoke furnaces, but no one believed kids with foreign-sounding names like Hagopian and Markarian could play such a fundamentally American game.

As it turned out, they played brilliantly: Granite City won the state championship. One of the players, Andy Phillip—of Hungarian descent—went on to become an NBA All Star.

The Armenian connection extends even deeper than several team members. The film is based on a book of the same name by retired Milwaukee Journal Sentinel sports writer Dan Manoyan, and the script is by Armand Kachigian.

They may not be marquee names yet, but the movie is set to star William Hurt as the coach, and Shirley MacLaine as the teacher who played an important part in the players’ lives.


I’m eager to see it, and to cheer for the kids from Granite City. I’m already cheering for Valerie (Boolootian) McCaffrey, who is helping Armenians tell the kind of stories we need to hear more often. 

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Democracy in action: What happens when the press does its job but the voters don't do theirs?

Would you trust either of these guys?
Idealists see election coverage as a journalist’s highest calling, exposing fools and frauds while delivering vital information that allows the voters to make an intelligent choice.

Of course, that assumes there is an intelligent choice to be made and that voters will manage to figure it out.

I’m always mindful of the great journalist and skeptic H.L. Mencken’s observation about democracy: With more than 100 million Americans to choose from, some of whom were actually smart and capable, we ended up with Calvin Coolidge in the White House.

Still, I always thought covering elections diligently was at least worth a shot even if it was the sort of shot you have to bend over for.

Covering an election is an awful lot of work, even if you’re not on the campaign bus. Reporters and editors spend months tracking down candidates, tracking down rumors, tracking down photos, tracking down campaign reports.

There’s so much tracking involved that you could almost mistake the ballot for the FBI’s Most Wanted List. Occasionally, at least, there’s not much difference.

We’re in the final weeks of a gubernatorial campaign here in Florida where honesty is the big issue. Unfortunately for all of us, neither major candidate has the edge in that department.

The two big names are the current Republican governor, Rick Scott, and a former Republican governor, Charlie Crist, who was an Independent for a while and is now a Democrat.

After decades in Florida politics, Crist remains buoyant, energetic and charming. There has never been a hand within a hundred yards of him that he didn’t shake, and shake again.

As governor, he was conservative enough to be seriously considered as a vice presidential running mate by John McCain. When that didn’t work out, he was pragmatic enough to hug President Obama—quite literally. 

The photo helped get him flattened by a Tea Party steamroller named Marco Rubio when he decided to run for the Senate in 2010 instead of seeing reelection as governor.

The more consistently conservative Scott was elected governor that year. He looks like a corporate CEO, which is exactly what he was. Scott does not have Crist’s charisma but he does have more than $100 million. That helped him get elected but he never quite won the hearts of the state’s voters.

Scott’s approval rating has never topped 50 percent, which helped convince Democrats that a re-branded Crist could beat him. The polls all underscored that judgment until Crist won the Democratic nomination and the two faced each other head-on.

Since then, Scott and Crist haven’t so much been slugging it out as spitting on each other. It’s an effective way to make your opponent look slimy but it has some pretty obvious drawbacks.

Crist’s campaign reminds voters that Scott started and ran a health-care company that pleaded guilty to Medicare fraud on a scale so vast it was fined $1.7 billion. Scott, who wasn’t accused of a crime, said he would have stopped the scheme but he had no idea what was going on even though he was in charge.

Would you put that on your resume?

Scott’s campaign points out that as governor, Crist got mighty cozy with high-flying attorney Scott Rothstein, who is now serving a 50-year prison term for running a Ponzi scheme.

At one point, Rothstein paid $52,000 to put a candle on Crist’s birthday cake. In return, Crist let Rothstein help blow them all out, setting up another haunting photo op for the Scott campaign.

The bigger problem is that Crist appointed Rothstein to a panel that selected judges. Rothstein later boasted that his influence over Crist allowed him to buy a seat on the bench for his favored candidates.

That might not be true, but the slime ads for both sides are extremely effective. One major poll shows that four in 10 voters think both candidates are crooked, and voter disapproval of each one exceeds even that bleak assessment.

The result is a near dead heat between two candidates nobody much wants or trusts. What’s troubling is that none of the questions that seem to bother us now are new.

The press did its job in exploring and exposing these foibles and follies on both sides, but one of them will be elected governor regardless.

It's easy to blame the bozos who put them on the ballot except for that messy complication of democracy: The bozos are us.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Here's a radical idea for fighting terrorism: Stand up for freedom of speech. Or is that just too much to expect from our government?


Why did he apologize for telling the truth?
Vice President Joe Biden has apologized to Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan for suggesting that Turkey helped encourage formation of the Islamic State terrorist network.

Biden created a fuss during a speech at Harvard University when he noted that the ranks of ISIS swelled as thousands of fighters crossed the border from Turkey to Syria. 

He said Erdogan conceded to him that this was a mistake and was now prepared to help America combat the ISIS offensive.

Biden's remarks drew swift condemnation from Erdogan, who not only denied conceding any such error but also denied the underlying facts.

As The Times put it, "Erdogan, despite widespread evidence to the contrary, denied that Turkey's long, porous border had enabled thousands of militants to cross onto the Syrian and Iraqi battlefields since the Syrian civil war began in 2011."

No one familiar with Erdogan's practice of inventing history and suppressing dissent would expect him to be deterred by the small matter of evidence to the contrary.

And no one familiar with America's mealy-mouthed policy toward Turkey would be surprised that Biden quickly backed down.

The Obama administration is trying very hard to persuade Erdogan to join the assault on ISIS (or ISIL or whatever they're calling themselves this week).

Instead, even as ISIS closes in on towns along the Turkish border, Turkey has ramped up attacks on journalists.

When the Times reported last month that Turkey continues to be fertile ground for ISIS recruitment, Erdogan's supporters took aim at the reporter. 

The Times noted that Ceylan Yeginsu, who is Turkish, received threats by email and social media. Two pro-government newspapers published front-page photographs of Yeginsu "and suggested she was a traitor and a foreign agent."

Erdogan's thugs showed disdain for America as well as for free speech when he met with Biden in New York on Sept. 25. Reporters from two Turkish newspapers that have been critical of Erdogan's government were evicted from the hotel and "manhandled" by Erdogan's bodyguards, according to Reporters Without Borders.

"Your existence is a crime," an Erdogan adviser told one of the reporters. 

Reporters Without Borders monitors media bullying around the world. It ranks Turkey a dismal 154th of 180 countries in its World Press Freedom Index.

Why would the vice president of the United States apologize for telling the truth about a regime with that sort of record?

Maybe we're just not the champions of freedom we used to be. Have we really become that scared, or that cynical?

I hate to think so, but I'm not so sure after looking at that index.

After all, we're only number 46.

Friday, October 3, 2014

I thought one day I'd own a hot, classic car. This one's actually cooler than you might think.

We each have a very personal vision of retirement.

You may picture your leisure years as one long pool party, or golf outing. Perhaps you’re the adventurous sort and plan to sky dive. Or maybe you’ll finally learn to tango, or speak French?

I always pictured myself driving an Oldsmobile.

All my working life, I thought I’d finally have the time to play with cars. Even one car would be fine as long as it was really fun, and that seemed achievable because my standard for fun was simple.

Any car with a V8.

When I was younger, I sampled the catalog of American cars available with four-barrel carburetors: Buick, Dodge, Mercury, Chevrolet.

I was a big Pontiac fan when Richard Petty drove Pontiacs. He won his 200th victory at Daytona International Speedway in a 1984 Pontiac Grand Prix that would have looked identical to mine if the one I bought came with racing stripes, a giant 43 on each side and Petty Blue paint.

But Oldsmobiles were at the top of my personal speed chart since I landed in the driver seat of a new 1969 442 the day I got my driver's license.

Say what you will about other advertising slogans, the Oldsmmobile Rocket V8 was aptly named—trust me on that. I rode Rockets on and off for years, adding a 1979 Hurst/Olds and a 1987 442 to the roaring roster of cars that came and went too soon.

I was such a fan (and good customer) that I received a treasured memento from the company in 1997—my own copy of Setting The Pace, Oldsmobile’s First 100 Years.  I still marvel at the evocative names that conjured up a glorious, limitless future for America, Olds and me: Futuramic, Starfire, Toronado.

Unfortunately, Oldsmobile came up short of completing its second century by 93 years. The last one chugged out of the assembly building in 2004.

Sure, there are plenty of Oldsmobiles still around, but what would I do with one? None of the models that appeal most would fit in our modern-scale garage, and the fuel mileage wouldn’t fit my retirement-scale budget.

Even if I wanted one for weekend joy rides, I’d face a formidable obstacle in the other retiree who shares the garage. She is much more sensible and feels money is best spent on practical items, which could be defined broadly but accurately as anything without spark plugs.

That’s not really a problem, as my automotive enthusiasm has waned over the years—and my enthusiasm for American cars out-waned the rest thanks to shoddy construction and bad designs.

The capper was when the power steering in my last Pontiac quit for good in rush-hour traffic. The car was all of three weeks old. Unfortunately for General Motors, the dealer that towed the car also sold Hondas. I sat in one while I waited. They had to pry me out, but it made a lasting impression.

I discovered that small cars with four cylinders can be as much fun as big cars with V8s, although fun of any sort is severely rationed on the tourist-jammed roads of South Florida.

As my wise friend David Blasco reminds me, the only reason cars here have engines is to run the air conditioner--and believe me, you do want to run the air conditioner.

None of it matters so much now that my commuting days are over. Thanks to our late and dearly missed Aunt Arpie, I now have the perfect car for a man of mature years.

I drive a tan Toyota Camry.

When Arpie quit driving, she sold me her 2002 Camry XLE. It really was the car of urban legend that an old lady drove to church on Sundays. Although it was nine years old, the Toyota was just inching toward 30,000 miles.

Three years later, I’ve managed to add just 15,000 miles to the odometer. The paint still shines, the seats look like new, and until the battery died last week the Toyota never failed to start.  

The four-cylinder motor doesn’t have all that much zip, but neither do I these days. In fact, the Camry and I are a perfect match: We both get around slow and easy, and we have plenty of company in doing so.

The Camry is a very popular car among South Florida’s large retiree population, and tan seems to be the color of choice. It’s not unusual to be driving along behind one and in front of another.

It’s like driving the cool kids’ car in high school, except the cool kids are all 85 years old.

That’s OK with me. I have no problem driving this car, but I do have a problem parking it. The problem is that there are so many just like it everywhere I go that I have to click my way from car to car trying to figure out which one’s mine.


A tan Camry wasn't my vision of retirement, but it sure seems to be everyone else's.