Author Archives: Johanna Berkman

You Could Live Here

“You could live here,” the pilates instructor at our hotel in Santa teresa, Costa Rica, tells me. “You’d just need a dog.” And it’s true, at least the second part of her statement, because there are dogs everywhere here, frolicking in packs on the beach, sidling up next to you to nap by your side or just to hang out under your table wherever you happen to be eating. The other day it was even the same dog who napped at my husband’s side in the afternoon on the beach, and then reappeared to do the same, while we were having dinner at an Israeli restaurant in the middle of town. That dog, unlike many of the dogs here, had a collar, but he is so adorable that I might even take him if I could.

The pilates class I have wound up in, which is way beyond my skill level (this, because I don’t even have a “pilates skill level,” having never before used the machines) is locals only and so in addition to all the excruciating butt burning exercises, I get to hear everyone’s stories.

Bobbi, who is 67 and has done over one hundred triathlons, is a retired insurance agent from Pennsylvania who spent much of her life moving all over the world with her Navy husband, only to retire between here and her newly purchased condo at a retirement community in Delray Beach, Florida. “I bought it so I can go shopping,” she tells me, as there is very little to buy here beyond rash guards and t-shirts. She lives just across the road from our hotel and also has a half built rancho in a nearby mountain town — half built because her husband made the mistake of paying the contractor all the money up front.

Marin is from Brooklyn, probably late 30s, and laughs when she says, “Yeah, I guess I’m retired too. I moved here after my divorce.” Marin lives in town, and bought some commercial real estate which she rents out to a medical practice. She also owns a horse which, in and of itself, means she is living my dream. “I can get you a horse,” she tells me. “Horses here are cheap.” And as it turns out, she is selling hers because after riding daily for years she no longer does. “When you live here,” she says, “you have your morning routine with your dog, coming down to the beach. And then you have your sunset routine.” Which, I gather, also involves one’s dog and coming down to the beach.

Last night, as I was trying to fall asleep in our little bungalow I heard four big booms that sounded just like a gun. Immediately I called hotel security. And then called a few more times because no one ever picked up. Then I checked online. But there was nothing there either.

This morning, in class, I asked about last night’s noises. “I didn’t hear anything,” says our instructor. “My body just gave out and I went to bed at 8.” “It was fireworks,” says Marin. “It’s just because you’re from New York that you thought about guns.”

To the Power of Words: Remembering Congressman Dellums

The summer of 1988, back when I was in high school, I was honored, and grateful, to be a page in the U.S. House of Representatives. Of course, I came to Washington expecting to witness rousing speeches and watershed moments, but the Floor of the House was mostly quiet that summer and the job really consisted of delivering mail around the Capitol and developing endless calluses. But then on August 8th, just before the Congressional recess, everything changed. Congressman Ron Dellums, an African-American from Oakland, California, took to the podium and gave the most intense and moving speech I had – and still have – ever witnessed in my life. His Anti-Apartheid bill, a cause, which he had worked on for many years, if not all of his career, was expected to fail, but his speech was so impassioned that not only did his fellow members come out to watch him, but that rarest of things actually happened: those who were about to vote against the bill were so stirred by his oratory that they actually changed their minds. Congressman Dellums cried during that speech, which won him a standing ovation, and it is a privilege to remember him, and all that he did to fight Apartheid, today, upon his death. He was a great American who did not give up hope and worked tirelessly to accomplish what had once seemed an impossible dream. To the power of words, to the power of a single person to effect the course of history, and may there be better days ahead.

Hey Forbes, Why No “Richest Self-Made” Men?

Dear Forbes,

It is a pleasure, as it always has been these last four years, to read through your latest “America’s Richest Self-Made Women” list — even if, at least in my circles, people were horrified that now not one, but two, Kardashian/ Jenners made it on. (Pfshaw! I said. Good for them!)

In my mind, your “America’s Richest Self-Made Women” list serves as a great female corrective to your “400 Richest Americans” list whose most recent edition included only 55 women, all but 12 of whom had made it on as a result of marriage or one of the three Ds: divorce, death (of a spouse) or daughterhood.

To get on the “400 Richest Americans” list last year one needed a net worth of $2 billion; to get on today’s “Richest Self-Made Women” list one needed a comparatively more attainable net worth of $320 million, so there is that aspect too — a lowering of the bar so as to include more women. Here, here! And chalk one up for gender equity.

But can there truly be gender equity when Forbes has no comparable list of “America’s Richest Self-Made Men”?

Of the men on Forbes’s “400 Richest Americans” list, 92 of them had significant inherited wealth, a category of men that Warren Buffett likes to refer to as “the lucky sperm club.” Yes, I’m looking at you, Donald Trump.

So why not start an “America’s Richest Self-Made Men” list? After all, if we’re going to single out women for celebration on the basis of their going out and creating their own fortunes, shouldn’t we do the same for men?

And that would truly be equity.

That Must Have Been Some House

This morning, I was walking to the library, wearing a backpack that weighed about 25 pounds, wearing earphones and talking on the phone to my father who is now, blessedly 89, when I found myself passing by Mike Bloomberg’s double wide mansion. Suddenly the door to his home opened as one of his staff began taking out trash. I turned, admittedly out of a kind of deep-seated prurient interest, and there it was, a long white hallway off of which there were many rooms, in other words, nothing much really. But then suddenly my heel slipped and I was falling, earphones yanked from my ears, my body pitching downward and to the right in a way that felt slow and controlled even though it was neither. “Are you okay?” said a woman, stopping right beside me, as I reached from the ground for my earphones. And then suddenly I was surrounded by at least four more people, men and women both. “Can we help you up?” “Do you need anything?” “Are you alright?” I was fine. I was sure I was fine, though eager to get back to my father who I imagined might have heard some of the hubbub and must be wondering what the hell was going on. “You are all so kind,” I said. “I am completely fine. Thank you!” And then I got up, put back in my ear phones and found my father still on the line. In brief I told him what had happened. “Mike Bloomberg?” he said. “That must have been some house.”

How Could You Be the Leader?

On our horseback ride through Monument Valley, Utah, our Navajo guide, Jerome, told me that he didn’t talk politics or religion but of course on the trail we talked both. At one point, riding through the landscape that had been used by John Ford in so many of his movies, we could see the Bears Ears Monument, looking like just what the name implies, resting atop a giant Mesa in the distance. In spite of how much Jerome needs work – most of the year he subsists on a mix of construction and mining jobs in a town about 50 miles from the ranch where we met him – he, like so many Native Americans, is ardently opposed to Trump’s plan to shrink Bears Ears by 85 percent. “I don’t understand how you could be the leader and not be for all the people.”

The Play That Went Wrong

We are standing at the gate for our evening flight to Phoenix when my husband stays, “I think we’re on a spring break flight.” Indeed, most of the people around us seem to be high schoolers. But then our own high schooler says, “Those kids aren’t New Yorkers. Look at them. A lot of them are wearing New York shirts.” He’s right, the adults among them even wearing denim rhinestone encrusted NY hats. And then we start to chat.

As it turns out, the students are from the drama, dance and orchestra clubs of a high school in Tempe, Arizona, and have come to New York to take dance classes, see “The Play that Went Wrong,” and Bernadette Peters in “Hello Dolly.” A parent chaperone tells me she has ten kids, four who are biologically her own, plus six she has taken in from her niece who is a meth addict and currently in jail. “Wow, you’re a hero,” I tell her. She tells me that her niece now hates her, and when I ask how she pays for all these kids, she tells me that she and her husband got licensed as foster parents and so the state now pays them a monthly stipend per head. She had to rent a bigger house, she had to buy a 14-seat van. “Sometimes I literally go crazy,” she says. “This trip was a break for me. I got to get away.”