Author Archives: Johanna Berkman

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.”

A Fire of One’s Own

Our 14 year-old is working on climbing all 46 of the Adirondack High Peaks that are 4,000 feet in elevation and higher, a noble goal that is known up here as “becoming a 46er,” but what this means, in effect, is that every time we come here, he begs either me or my husband to take him off on a very intense day hike so he can bag another one.

Today he somehow convinced my husband, who was already complaining mightily about his plantar fasciitis after our six mile hike yesterday, to take him on a ten mile hike up Dial Mountain so he can bag number 37.

And so they left early this morning, taking our water bottles, our maps, and, most significantly, our car, with them.

Were it not freezing with a high wind chill this wouldn’t matter much because there’s so many hikes we can do right here (which is, after all, the point, and the reason I’m so gamely putting up with the rusted fridge and a few other indignities).

But it is freezing, and though we are inspired by reports of a bald eagle sighting right here on the lake, and we get new maps and buy water bottles from Dr. Doolittle, when we return to the cottage after a hearty breakfast we lose all momentum.

Led by my 10 year-old daughter, we set out to make a fire in our big stone fireplace, something I have never attempted before. We burn dozens of sheets of newspaper and blow through nearly a whole box of matches before she sets out for help from the maintenance man, whoever that is, and arrives back home with Dr. Doolittle, who is apparently a jack of all trades.

Dr. Doolittle, who I learn is from Montana, builds us a fire quickly, and efficiently, while teaching us how to do it for ourselves.

Eventually the wind dies down, and we go out for a beautiful hike around the lake. And when we come home we finally do it — we build a fire of our own.