My first cancer survival at age 28

I have been describing my third cancer experience at age 65 when I was diagnosed in April in State College PA and had a successful operation in August in New York City at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center.

  • How did I survive cancer three times?
  • How was I able to father two daughters after massive radiation treatment?
  • Why was cancer treatment responsible for my becoming a paraplegic?
  • What was my emotional state during these three experiences which otherwise might have forced me to concentrate on death rather than enjoying life?


Answers may be difficult to provide, but what follows is my first attempt to use language for the ineffable.

Five years after my experience with Hodgkin’s disease, my publication on the subject in The New York Times, my appearance on ABC’s Good Morning America, I received a book contract and proceeded to interview formally (receiving signed releases) and on tape the accounts of my:

  • Oncologist
  • Lover
  • Surgeon
  • Mother
  • Father
  • Friends
  • Therapists
  • Members of the therapy group who first learned I had cancer

Writing the book was difficult especially revisiting the radiation treatment room at George Washington University Medical Center where the chief radiologist had died from exposure to his own machines.

Making the difficult an easy read was also difficult and slow.

What follows is Chapter One of Learning to Live Again, My Triumph Over Cancer.

[Readers desirous of obtaining the entire book, praised by the prestigious Library Journal, may download it here and now.

What follows is the entire chapter one of Learning to Live Again: My Triumph Over Cancer, published by Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, then a subsidiary of CBS.


Chapter 1

I DO NOT HAVE CANCER ANYMORE. The disease was treated by conventional radiation therapy, and my physicians say that it has been eradicated. I believe that I have been cured, despite a recurring nightmare that a doctor is examining my body, checking for lumps.

Today, I had lunch with Laura in the oak-paneled dining room of the Hay-Adams Hotel. We each had two drinks and needed more. Our love affair became a casualty of the cancer cure. Too much intensity was confined to too short a period of time, time that always seemed to be running out. Although we tried afterward, we were unable to salvage our relationship. Today, I told Laura that I am engaged to marry another woman—Diana, whom I met after the cancer experience was over. Laura and I toasted to the future—a future that we will not share.

It is spring here in Washington. The cherry blossoms are out early.

Spring this year feels the same as it did five years ago. I continue to live in the same city and in the same apartment. At thirty-three, I am too young to write my memoirs. Yet that is what I am doing, reliving the period five years ago when I was diagnosed as having cancer and feared death. The diagnosis and its treatment—over a period of six months—was the worst experience of my life. Remembering how poorly I behaved is worse than remembering the physical pain and the fear.

Now, five years later, my statistical category has changed. Today I conform to the American Cancer Society’s definition of cured: five years without a recurrence of symptoms. A generation ago my type of cancer, Hodgkin’s disease, was described as “invariably fatal.” A generation ago I could not have survived five years. I would not have lived to interview family, friends, and physicians, nor to revisit the hospital in which I was operated upon and treated. The difficulties of remembering and surviving would have been denied me.

ON FRIDAY AFTERNOON, April 23, 1976, I am sitting in a doctor’s office worrying. Worrying is something that I do a lot and am good at. At the time I do not realize that I have much more reason for concern than when I normally worry about (a) money, (b) getting the article in on time, (c) my relationship with Laura, (d) finishing the book, (e) cleaning the apartment, and so on. Specifically, I am in the waiting room of Aaron Falk’s * office because there is a small lump—about the size of a golf ball—under my right arm. The lump does not hurt, and it is noticeable to no one but me. However, it has been there for a number of weeks, and several times a day I find myself feeling under my armpit to check whether it has gone away. The lump has joined my mental list of things to worry about.

Given how regularly I worry about my health—running to a doctor’s office at the first sign of a cold, a sore throat, or a backache—I do not anticipate that my first appointment with Dr. Falk will be noticeably different from previous appointments with other doctors. My experience as a mild hypochondriac is that doctors find my ailments boring. I leave their offices feeling embarrassed for bothering them and stupid for paying so much money to find out that there’s nothing wrong with me.

Indeed, I have made the appointment because I want to be reassured that nothing is wrong with me. This time I am sufficiently concerned about the lump that I am willing to risk the likely embarrassment and expense. However, the longer I sit in the waiting room, the more convinced I become that the lump is inconsequential and that it will probably disappear if I wait long enough. I am convinced that Dr. Falk, whom I have yet to meet, will be polite, but in a tone that will imply that doctors go to medical school to cure really sick people and why does he have to waste his time seeing obviously healthy people like me.

As I read the plastic sign welcoming patients to talk about physician fees with the physician, I decide that now that I am in the doctor’s office, I can stop worrying about the lump and start worrying about money. My concern about money at this time has a rational aspect to it. As a free-lance writer my income is precarious. I have difficulty obtaining insurance. My previous policy, with Stan, a friend of a friend who agreed to let me join his group plan, was terminated because Stan pocketed the payments rather than sending them to Blue Cross. That experience has made me feel insecure about my current plan, with the newly formed Washington Independent Writers. The paperwork is already fouled up. Despite the organization’s reassurance that my membership card has been processed and is in the mail, I worry that I may not be covered by insurance at all. So as I appraise the doctor’s office, which is in an expensive neighborhood, provides free parking for its patients, has its own laboratory on the premises, and offers a spacious waiting room (where a large potted plant has cedar chips covering the soil), I am concerned that the tests and doctor’s fee will be more than I can afford—and all for a complaint that will probably turn out to be nothing.

Aaron Falk begins, as doctors do, by asking why I have come to see him. I tell him about the lump under my arm, that it has been there for several weeks, that it doesn’t hurt, and that it hasn’t gone away. I ask, “Is it serious?”

He says, “I don’t know yet. First let’s get the usual questions out of the way. Then we’ll go next door where you’ll take your clothes off and I’ll examine you. We’ll take some routine blood tests and a chest X ray. When we’re done with that we’ll come back here and I’ll tell you what I think, assuming I think anything. Okay? Now, how old are you?”



“I’m a writer, specializing in agricultural policy.” We talk about that for a while.

We get along instantly. Our ability to communicate seems uncanny. There are not the usual barriers that separate doctor from patient. Dr. Falk is only seven years older than I, so we relate as peers. He is not condescending toward me, as are physicians who make themselves inaccessible because of their specialized knowledge.

BY THE END Of the day, I was calling him by his first name, because it seemed artificial for him to call me Joel while I was calling him Dr. Falk. In retrospect, I must have decided to trust Aaron as soon as we met, when I entered his private office and sat down on the wood-and-wicker chair.

At the time of this first visit, I knew nothing about his educational background. Dr. Falk graduated from Harvard College and went to the University of Pennsylvania Medical School. I also did not find out, until much later, that Dr. Falk and I shared a similar religious upbringing: he attended the Hebrew Academy of Washington; I went to the Hebrew Academy of Miami Beach. While I soon rejected the ritual and ever-present discipline of orthodox Judaism, Dr. Falk continued to observe it. Indeed given the additional distance I was then putting between myself and Judaism, if I had known about our shared religious background, it would have put distance between us.

AARON is the same height as I am-5 feet 10 inches. He is thin and although prematurely gray, he looks younger than he is. Our preliminary small talk clearly makes him impatient, an impatience he has difficulty curbing. He recognizes the necessity of getting acquainted, but fidgets as he sits, uncertain about what to do with his large hands and arms, patently restraining the impulse to dash down the corridor and “do something.” This impatient, almost distracted manner extends to his dress. He is wearing a regulation jacket and tie, but it is that and no more, he looks neither dapper nor even coordinated, his clothes the expression of a man who has more important concerns. He talks in spurts, the way professors do who are more comfortable with scholarship than students. Sentences are strung together rapid-fire, followed by long pauses while he weighs each word. He suspects that he’s transparent and that everyone knows what he’s thinking when he’s thinking it. So Aaron smiles a lot during his embarrassed pauses or when I am talking too long, as if to say, Dealing with people comes awkwardly, but I want you to like me. The smiles work. His eyes light up, expressing interest, even tenderness.

“Marital status?” Aaron asks.

I must be more frightened than I realize. Rather than say, “Single and divorced,” which is how I usually automatically answer the question, I launch into an exposition on the intricacies of New York State’s divorce laws, which five years previous made it more convenient to get an annulment than a divorce. When I respond to a simple question with a long, irrelevant answer, it means that I don’t want to deal with whatever’s going on.

On the way to the examination room he asks how I’ve been referred to him. I say, “I see Dr. Bernstein” (an ear-nose-and-throat specialist whom I visit for colds and allergy attacks). “I asked the secretary what kind of doctor specializes in lumps. She said an internist and gave me your name.”

“You certainly are lucky,” Aaron says. “Not only am I an internist, but this office’s specialty is hematology.” (He does not mention that the office’s other specialty is oncology—the treatment of cancer.)

We are now inside the examination room and he says, “Take off your clothes and I’ll be right back.”

“What’s hematology?”

He stops moving and answers. “It deals with disorders of the blood. It means, you might say, that lumps are our bag.”

What he says frightens me. Instead of asking the obvious—”Do I have a disorder of the blood?”—I revert to worrying about money. Telling him of my concern I say, “Tests are expensive and I’m short of funds right now. Can you go easy on the tests?”

Abruptly, he places his right arm against the door, as if to stop himself from exiting. Turning toward me, he seems suddenly angry as he says, “Nobody’s going to tell me how to practice medicine. If I order tests, it’s because I think they’re necessary. I’m a doctor and my concern is your health. I don’t give a damn about the money. If you can’t afford it, then you can’t afford it. We’ll work something out. You’ll pay me if you can, and if you can’t then you can’t. Money is the last thing we need to worry about now. I’m not going to let you tie my hands by telling me not to order the tests I need to practice quality medicine.”

After I take off my clothes, he feels the lump under my right arm, asking whether it hurts as he touches it. It doesn’t hurt. Kneading my skin with his fingertips, he feels for lumps under my left arm, under my ears and behind my neck, across my abdomen, and at my groin. There aren’t any other lumps.

He asks, “Do you have sudden chills or wake up sweating in the middle of the night?

“Have you been running a fever?

“Do you have sudden outbreaks of itching?

“Have you recently experienced sudden and unexplained weight loss?

“Do you suffer from loss of appetite?”

I answer no to all the questions, and when they stop, I say, “Why are you asking me this? What’s wrong with me?”

He says, “I don’t know that anything’s wrong with you. Go to the lab around the corner—he points the way—”and they’ll take some blood. The nurse there will direct you to the X-ray room. After you’re done with the chest X ray, get dressed and return to my office. Then, we’ll talk.”

If there were more room in the office, he’d probably pace, trying to figure out some way of saying what he wants to say without frightening me. Instead, he leans awkwardly against a bookshelf and, in a rush to get it over with, blurts out, “Look, I don’t know what the lump is. It’s probably nothing, but I don’t know. I think it’s a good idea for you to see a surgeon so he can remove the lump from your arm and we can examine it and find out what it is.” He is trying hard to convey as much information as possible, so I can understand his perspective and make a rational decision. He smiles abruptly, as if to apologize for what he’s just told me, and asks, “Are you willing to see a surgeon?”

“I guess so.”

“Can you do it right now?”


He gets on the phone and calls a surgeon named Cory Simpson and inquires whether he can see me right away. He can. Aaron says about me, “Yes, he’s perfectly capable of walking over. In fact, I’ll tell him to run over. He’ll be there in a few minutes.”

Aaron gives me Simpson’s address, which is about five blocks away. He says, “Look, it’s Friday afternoon and you’re lucky that Dr. Simpson can see you right now. I want him to have a look at your arm. Then come back here so we can talk.”

As I leave his office, he calls after me. “Hey, there’s nothing to worry about. I don’t want you to be alarmed. It’s best to do these things quickly, just to be on the safe side.”

As I am crossing L Street and New Hampshire Avenue, it does not occur to me to question why I am listening to this doctor’s urgent instructions or why I trust him. I am puzzled because never before has a physician taken my physical ailments quite this seriously. Fear is creeping up on me, fear because the doctor has asked me specific questions and because it seems that I have a specific disease; fear because he says he specializes in disorders of the blood and by implication that’s what I may have; fear because I am en route to a surgeon. I have never had an operation, and I’m a coward when it comes to pain. Fear because a doctor thinks that an operation is necessary at all. But I don’t actually feel frightened yet. I can tell that the fear is coming, but am able to put it off, not wanting to be afraid, too busy concentrating on getting to Simpson’s office and on obtaining as quickly as possible a new range of information that I’ll need to deal with this situation. I know that I’ll be frightened later, but for the moment my curiosity is stronger than the fear. I consciously decide—like Spock in “Star Trek”—to banish my emotions and concentrate on being logical.

I arrive at Dr. Simpson’s office and am filling out the insurance form when the doctor comes out. “Are you Mr. Solkoff?” Pointing to the insurance form, he says, “You can do that later. Why don’t you come into my office?”

Simpson is also not much older than I. He is tall, thin, and wears a tapered three-piece designer suit. Among George Washington University medical students, who are notoriously hard on their instructors, he has a reputation for being a very fast and very good surgeon.

Right away, I find him to be unpretentious and easy to understand. He feels the lump under my arm and says that he doesn’t think there will be any problem removing it. He reassures me that the operation won’t be painful (which I don’t believe), that I’ll be awake while he does it, and that I can return to work right away.

I say, “What’s the rush? Why did Dr. Falk tell me to run over here?”

“Aaron has a tendency to be enthusiastic. He probably thinks it’s a good idea to find out quickly what that ‘lump,’ as you call it, really is.”

“What do you think it is?”

“I don’t know. You’ll have to ask Aaron.”

SIMPSON’S ATTITUDE toward me, from the beginning, was matter-of-fact. Later, he told me, “In reality, as a surgeon I was actually put in the position of being just a technician. I was not making major decisions regarding your care. The major decisions were really made by Dr. Falk—and you, of course.” He explained that surgeons, like anyone else, would prefer to be creative and in a position of authority.

Instead, as often happens, he was asked to do a routine task which he had done hundreds of times before. He was perfectly willing to explain the procedure to me and consistently answered every question asked about surgery and possible complications. However, regarding speculations on my diagnosis and life chances he continually referred me back to Aaron, whom he regarded as my primary physician. Whenever I asked whether he thought a procedure Aaron recommended was necessary, he said yes, telling me that Aaron was a respected physician who specialized in conditions like mine and whose judgment was trustworthy.

Eventually Simpson told me, “You and I are relatively close in age, and since I could avoid thinking about your dying, I did.”

Simpson and I never became friends, as opposed to my relationship with Aaron. I still don’t know Simpson well, and I doubt that many people do. Yet I respected him. He was easy to be with during painful and stressful situations. Like Aaron, he has an off-beat sense of humor, which we shared and enjoyed, and while there was nothing memorable about our jokes and bantering, it made future events easier that we all “horsed around” (as Aaron put it), often in a self-deprecating way. Given the closeness in our ages, none of us took offense or felt threatened when I complained about Simpson’s sutures or Aaron’s plans for treatment or when they complained about my behavior. Had they been much older, or had I been much older, my relationship with my doctors would have been more decorous—making the whole experience grimmer.

BACK AT AARON’S OFFICE, I ask what he thinks the lump is. He says, “It may be nothing at all, just some fatty tissue.” “But you think it’s something else?”

“I don’t think it’s something else. I don’t know what it is. That’s why I want to find out.”

“What else might it be?”

“It’s probably a benign tumor.”

I am frightened by the word tumor. Having assumed that I’d never have to deal with a tumor, each time the word appears in conversation I tune it out. “If it’s benign, why is it swollen?” I ask Aaron.

“All tumors are enlargements, abnormal growths. Most just happen, for reasons which are complicated and about which we’re not entirely sure.

Most tumors are benign, which means they’re not serious, and when we remove them, there’s nothing to worry about. The chances are that yours is benign and that when Dr. Simpson removes it, you and I will be done and you can go about your business.”

“And if it’s a serious tumor?” I don’t want to say the word cancer.

“I don’t think it’s serious, but if it is, then we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it.”

We talk about scheduling for the operation. He wants the tumor out of me as quickly as possible. I realize that walking around worrying that I have “something serious” when I probably don’t is stupid, and the sooner I know the better. But I don’t want someone else or something else controlling my life. I have an article to complete on Cesar Chavez, which Marty Peretz, the owner of The New Republic, commissioned and is expecting. Already, I am beginning the process of negotiating, trying to fit the problem of my tumor into my schedule. Aaron says firmly, “Don’t wait too long. This is something that should be taken care of right away.” I promise to call Simpson’s office and schedule an appointment.

 * While all characters in this book are real, several names have been changed.

This material is copyrighted © 2013 by Joel Solkoff. All rights reserved.

[Reminder, to read the rest of the book, please click this link:]



Here is Tim McGraw singing on just this very subject.

He said 
I was in my early forties 
With a lot of life before me 
And a moment came that stopped me on a dime 
I spent most of the next days 
Looking at the x-rays 
Talkin’ ’bout the options 
And talkin’ ’bout sweet time” 

I asked him
“When it sank in
That this might really be the real end
How’s it hit you
When you get that kind of news?
Man, what’d you do?”

He said
“I went skydiving
I went Rocky Mountain climbing
I went 2.7 seconds on a bull named Fu Manchu
And I loved deeper
And I spoke sweeter
And I gave forgiveness I’d been denying”
And he said
“Someday I hope you get the chance
To live like you were dying”

He said
“I was finally the husband
That most of the time I wasn’t
And I became a friend a friend would like to have
And all of a sudden going fishin’
Wasn’t such an imposition
And I went three times that year I lost my dad
I finally read the Good Book, and I
Took a good, long, hard look
At what I’d do if I could do it all again…

And he said

“Someday I hope you get the chance

To live like you were dying

Like tomorrow was a gift

And you’ve got eternity
To think about
What you’d do with it
What could you do with it
What did I do with it?
What would I do with it?

My You Tube “sound” video on the Morgan Library for e-architect U.K.

Readers are aware that I have an obsession with Renzo Piano’s Morgan Museum and Library in New York. Consider, for example, the percentage of my published e-architect articles on the subject.

This is how Adrian Welch, my editor at e-architect UK, described this You Tube, which I produced for him:

Giorgio Bianchi, one of the most experienced architects from the Renzo Piano Building Workshop, in discussion with Joel Solkoff, a research assistant at the Department of Architectural Engineering at Penn State, USA, campaigner for good access for disabled and elderly in buildings and regular e-architect guest editor.

“Giorgio Bianchi is interviewed about his role in executing Renzo Piano’s J.P. Morgan Library and Museum Building, New York City, USA – his Creative Vision of the Vault ; how he went about the job of executing Renzo Piano’s vision ; his perspective on the role of the executive architect namely Bender Beyer Belle in clearing away the incredible regulatory hurdles ; his views on Building Information Modeling and the use of Revit to create BIM-compliant virtual reality models.”

Here is Giorgio Bianchi, in an interview conducted exclusively for e-architect discussing his role as Renzo Piano’s Partner In Charge of the Morgan. It is impossible not to hear outside Giorgio’s Paris cubicle as architects with fashionable heels dash back and forth urgently engaged in improving the world’s built environment.


Tangential note on silent movies: When my grandmother was 16, she attended a silent movie (there were no talkies at the time). A live orchestra provided the musical score for the film. My grandmother fell in love with the clarinet player and two years later my mother was born. This note explains why producing a talking picture (even one as minimal as a You Tube) is a comfort to me–avoiding my daughters having to explain if they have grandchildren, how my genetic propensity for silent movies led to….




Today is White Cane Safety Day


White Cane Safety Day is a national observance in the United States, celebrated on October 15 of each year since 1964.

The date is set aside to celebrate the achievements of people who are blind or visually impaired and the important symbol of blindness and tool of independence, the white cane. 

On October 6, 1964, a joint resolution of the U.S. Congress, H.R. 753, was signed into law as Pub.L. 88–628, and codified at 36 U.S.C. § 142.

This resolution authorized the President of the United States to proclaim October 15 of each year as “White Cane Safety Day.”

President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the first White Cane Safety Day proclamation within hours of the passage of the joint resolution.

-Joseph Fagnani, Altoona, PA



Presidential Proclamation — Blind Americans Equality Day, 2013



Blind and visually impaired persons have always played an important role in American life and culture, and today we recommit to our goals of full access and opportunity. Whether sprinting across finish lines, leading innovation in business and government, or creating powerful music and art, blind and visually impaired Americans imagine and pursue ideas and goals that move our country forward. As a Nation, it is our task to ensure they can always access the tools and support they need to turn those ideas and goals into realities.

My Administration is committed to advancing opportunity for people with disabilities through the Americans with Disabilities Act and other important avenues. In June of this year, the United States joined with over 150 countries in approving a landmark treaty that aims to expand access for visually impaired persons and other persons with print disabilities to information, culture, and education. By facilitating access to books and other printed material, the treaty holds the potential to open up worlds of knowledge. If the United States becomes a party to this treaty, we can reduce the book famine that confronts the blind community while maintaining the integrity of the international copyright framework.

The United States was also proud to join 141 other countries in signing the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities in 2009, and we are working toward its ratification. Americans with Disabilities, including those who are blind or visually impaired, should have the same opportunities to work, study, and travel in other countries as any other American, and the Convention can help us realize that goal.

Department of Education issued new guidance in June for the use of Braille as a literacy tool under the Individuals with Disabilities Education ActTo create a more level playing field and ensure students with disabilities have access to the general education curriculum, the student has a chance to succeed in the classroom and graduate from high school prepared for college and careers.

We have come a long way in our journey toward a more perfect Union, but we still have work ahead. We must fulfill the promise of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness and expand the freedom to make of our lives what we will. On this day, we celebrate the accomplishments of our blind and visually impaired citizens, and we recommit to building a Nation where all Americans, including those who are blind or visually impaired, live with the assurance of equal opportunity and equal respect.

By joint resolution approved on October 6, 1964 (Public Law 88-628, as amended), the Congress designated October 15 of each year as “White Cane Safety Day” to recognize the contributions of Americans who are blind or have low vision. Today, let us recommit to ensuring we remain a Nation where all our people, including those with disabilities, have every opportunity to achieve their dreams.

NOW, THEREFORE, I, BARACK OBAMA, President of the United States of America, by virtue of the authority vested in me by the Constitution and the laws of the United States, do hereby proclaim October 15, 2013, as Blind Americans Equality Day. I call upon public officials, business and community leaders, educators, librarians, and Americans across the country to observe this day with appropriate ceremonies, activities, and programs.

IN WITNESS WHEREOF, I have hereunto set my hand this eleventh day of October, in the year of our Lord two thousand thirteen, and of the Independence of the United States of America the two hundred and thirty-eighth.



Mozart’s “Marriage of Figaro, a Day of Madness,” Cherubino overture on the delight of love

Cherubino is a valet to the evil Count.

The Count is trying to assert his “right” to sleep with the bride before her wedding day.

First there is a scene in which the groom is evaluating the bed on which he will deflower his bride.


“Cherubino arrives…describing his emerging infatuation with all women, particularly with his “beautiful godmother” the Countess (aria: Non so più cosa son – “I don’t know anymore what I am”), asks for Susanna’s aid with the Count.

Wikipedia continues: “It seems the Count is angry with Cherubino’s amorous ways, having discovered him with the gardener’s daughter, Barbarina, and plans to punish him.

“Cherubino wants Susanna to ask the Countess to intercede on his behalf. ”


Here is the English version of the aria , courtesy of You Tube:

You who know what love is,
Ladies, see if I have it in my heart.

I’ll tell you what I’m feeling,
It’s new for me, and I understand nothing.

I have a feeling, full of desire,
Which is by turns delightful and miserable.

I freeze and then feel my soul go up in flames,
Then in a moment I turn to ice.

I’m searching for affection outside of myself,
I don’t know how to hold it, nor even what it is!

I sigh and lament without wanting to,
I twitter and tremble without knowing why,
I find peace neither night nor day,
But still I rather enjoy languishing this way.

You who know what love is,
Ladies, see if I have it in my heart.

Here is the aria performed by Glyndebourne Festival Opera 1973. Frederica von Stade sings the role of Cherubino.

Here is the first page of the aria Mozart wrote scoring it for voices and instruments.


The manuscript is part of the collection of the Morgan Museum and Library in New York City and is produced here by permission.

I saw this manuscript the day before I saw a surgeon for kidney cancer. Seeing Mozart’s original manuscript made me happy.

–Joel Solkoff


Copyright 2013 by Joel Solkoff. All rights reserved.



Published in 1994: Uganda election results


From Africa, a sign of hope: Uganda takes promising step toward Democracy

It is six o’clock in the morning in Tira, a community near the Kenyan border that does not appear on the detailed Uganda map I am carrying with me. The sun is coming up over the grain shed containing dried-out sunflower seeds and discarded speeches on agriculture.

Ugandans should work harder, a 1968 draft urges.

The advice seems silly today, especially here in Tira where crops are well-tended and plentiful and livestock is getting fat.

Uganda is once again exporting food.This has happened after decades of incompetent, oppressive government by Idi Amin and Milton Obote, mass murderers on an impressive scale.

The country is also taking a significant step forward toward democracy by holding its first nationwide election in over 14 years. President Yoweri Museveni, who came to power in 1986, brought competence to the military, positioned the economy for economic recovery, and restored once-strained ties to the United States. Museveni called for elections and invited international observers to monitor them.

That is why I am here in Tira on Monday, March 28, to observe the polling for delegates to a constituent assembly. The assembly will write the country’s constitution and determine future presidential and other elections. The African-American Institute invited me to join its group of Ugandan election monitors, and for months AAI has been working in Uganda on an intensive voter education project.

There are 109 international observers in the country and our logistics are coordinated by the United Nations, which has teamed me up with Bettina Consten, a German foreign service officer and also an international observer. The U.N. has provided us with a jeep, driver, and security officer.

The German government donated flashlights for the election and at 5:45 this morning one of the flashlights was used as the polling officer unlocked the shed door and opened it. Inside were several ballot boxes, each containing such necessary material as indelible ink, to mark the voter’s right index finger as a precaution against voting more than once. The polling officer summoned several bicyclists, putting a ballot box on the back of each bicycle and sending a soldier with a sub-machine gun to guard each box as it goes along mountainous trails.

Now, 15 minutes later, poll workers are putting string on the tree branches inserted in the dirt. The string will act as an aid for an orderly line when the polls open at 7 o’clock. Polling will take place around a large and beautiful tree. Already, more than 30 of Tira’s 600 registered voters are waiting to vote. As I look at the crowd, I see the thatched huts (straw roof and mud brick walls) appear in the morning light. This is a community which has no electricity, telephone, or running water.

Then I hear a strange sound. It is the sound of ”Yankee Doodle” being played. One of the candidate’s poll watchers is carrying a transistor radio. “Yankee Doodle” is the sign-on theme music for the Voice of America which is giving news about preparations for the Uganda election. “Stuck a feather in his cap and called it macaroni.” Impossible to explain.

The election was a success. Bettina and I visited some 12 polling places, but we returned to Tira for the vote count. We had chosen Tira because it was as far from the urban center of Busia as possible and because our security officer said it was inconvenient to get to and advised us to go somewhere else. We figured, if you want to find something wrong, the best place to look is a place that’s hard to get to and where officials don’t want you to go. Watching as the polling officials dumped out the ballots on a large plastic garbage bag and then solemnly began to count, I realize how profoundly moving the democratic process can be. It is like suddenly being cast into a Frank Capra movie.

When the observers return to Kampala, the capital city, we write a U.N. report that says, “The over-all assessments of the international observers…is that the polling was a positive event and represented an important step forward toward democracy.”

When I return to Durham, I find that news of the killings in Rwanda. a small country on Uganda’s southwestern border, has dominated discussion about Africa. “Thank God you’re back,” one friend says. Another says, “I’ll bet you’re glad you got out in time.”

All Africa is not the same. It is a large continent with differences more diverse than North America because it is larger. And there is also good news coming out of Africa.

Stick a feather in your cap and call it macaroni.


Joel Solkoff is a technical writer who lives in Durham, NC with his wife and two children. His most recent book is The Politics of Food.

Shania Twain Tribute 2

160px-It1927clarabow“It girl is a term for a young woman who possesses the quality It, absolute attraction.

“The early usage of the concept it in this meaning may be seen in a story by Rudyard Kipling: ‘It isn’t beauty, so to speak, nor good talk necessarily. It’s just It.’

“Elinor Glyn lectured:

“‘With It you win all men if you are a woman and all women if you are a man. It can be a quality of the mind as well as a physical attraction.’

“The expression reached global attention in 1927, with the film It, starring Clara Bow.”

–from Wikipedia


I love the expression IT girl.

It fills the niche language requires for an often inexplicable phenomenon of desirability.

Shania Twain became the IT girl of country music in 1997 with the (pre-released sexy videos and the actual) album release of Come On Over.

Come On Over became the “best-selling studio album of all time by a female act in any genre,” the most popular country album ever with global sales of more than 40 million copies.

According to Wikipedia: “The album debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard Top Country Albums chart and stayed there for 50 non-consecutive weeks. It stayed in the Top Ten for 151 weeks.”


This is a video of Shania Twain describing the title song and the album:

Nothing Shania Twain has done since has equaled the commercial success of the Come on Over album and analysis of its success continues to be a source of considerable speculation.

There is, for example, the observation that the album’s success was largely a result of the brilliance of her producer Robert JohnMuttLange–called by everyone Mutt.


  • Co-wrote the Come on Over songs
  • Arranged for startlingly erotic videos
  • Insisted on Shania’s especially effective and previously unequaled video wardrobe


I interrupt the thread by exposing you to more Shania message with the surprisingly static video:

“If you wanna to touch her, Ask” the number nine cut on Come on Over.



  • Married Shania
  • Fathered her son born (in all places for a country music performer) in Switzerland
  • Left Shania for her best friend and she…

Here is the Wikipedia account:

“In August 2001, their son Eja (pronounced ‘Asia’) was born. On 15 May 2008 a spokesman for Mercury Nashville announced that Twain and Lange [Mutt] were separating after Lange had an affair. Lange began seeing Twain’s best friend, Marie-Anne Thiebaud. The couple divorced in June 2010, and Twain is now married to Thiebaud’s ex-husband Frederic.”


Here for the hell of it is another static video of what appears to me to be a feminist song, Shoes, co-written with Mutt.

Shania sings:

“Men: have you ever tried to figure them out?
Huh, me too, but I ain’t got no clue: how ’bout you?
Men are like shoes, made to confuse.
Yeah, there’s so many of ’em,
I don’t know which ones to choose….”


To return to the consequences of Shania’s Coming Home success, when Mutt left questions remained,

  • Did Shania have the song writing talent to succeed without Mutt?
  • Could she wear clothes designed to look especially provocative in heavily marketed videos?
  • Could she refine and foster her feminist message and encourage others to follow her lead?

After a two year hiatus between albums, Shania released Up, a good album with a dreadful cover song (the only bad song she has ever released).

Impatience in fans for a sequel to Coming Home reached the point where one Philadelphia Country Music Station (whose devoted listeners consisted primarily of fans who had never ridden a horse nor could tell the difference between a soybean and a corn field) ran a contest. The winner obtained a free trip to Switzerland for the purposes of hounding Shania and asking her when she would finish the new album.

The album Up was widely regarded as a failure selling only 20 million copies globally compared to 40 million for Come on Home.


Here is Shania Twain in 2003 demonstrating her post-Mutt star quality at the Michael Jackson spot at the Super Bowl, singing from both albums:


Shania Twain remains productive and exceptionally desirable as she continues unrivaled as the Queen of Country.


This leads one to ask: What is country music?

Shania Twain, whose first name was purchased by her former husband Mutt, never wanted to be a country performer. He goal was rock.

Now, a wide variety of singers have raised the crossover questions.

  • Is it country?
  • Is it rock?
  • What kind of music is it?


The arbiter of course is Kris Kristopherson who declared definitely,

“If it sounds like a country music song, it’s a country music song.”


Now would be a good time to describe The pantheon of country royalty which includes Shania’s place in the pantheon and the role of Country Music as cancer therapy. You may have been wondering when I will get around to this subject.

In the next posting  The pantheon of country royalty we will start with Tim McGraw, the undeniable current King of Country.

Here is Taylor Swift, undeniably country–her first solo performance was at a rodeo–, paying tribute to the King by singing the song that brought her fame:

Tim McGraw


Joel Solkoff

Copyright 2013 by Joel Solkoff. All rights reserved.













Why country music helped me survive cancer

This posting is a tribute to Shania Twain

  • Reigning queen of country music
  • Sexiest female performer in the history of country music
  • Writer of astonishingly intimate songs telling men what women want sexually and otherwise
  • Mentor to a talented array of female country musicians with a strong feminist agenda

There is a video where Shania Twain sings out her instructions to men not to touch without asking, but if they ask.

If the answer is Yes: See the sexy video for what you get.


As a child, Wikipedia reports, Shania Twain lived in poverty in Canada.

“Twain had a hard childhood in Timmins. Her parents earned little and there was often a shortage of food in the household. [Twain] did not confide her situation to school authorities, fearing they might break up the family. In the remote, rugged community, she learned to hunt and to chop wood.

Twain started singing at bars at the age of eight to try to make ends meet, often earning twenty dollars between midnight and one in the morning performing for remaining customers after the bar had finished serving.

“Although she expressed a dislike for singing in those bars, Twain believes that this was her own kind of performing arts school on the road.”

Shania Twain has said of her childhood ordeal:

“‘My deepest passion was music and it helped.

“There were moments when I thought I hate this. I hated going into bars and being with drunks.

“I loved the music and so I survived.


To get a true understanding of Shania Twain’s significance as the most effective star-power communicator of What Women Want, we must of course first go to the United Nations. The year is 1975.

The occasion:

After worrying about everything else, the UN finally decided that the role of women in the world was important [surprise!].

1975 became the official United Nations International Women’s Year.

This was the UN authorized and official song of the International Women’s Year.

This is Helen Reddy performing I am Woman in 1975.

\Wikipedia contains the following Helen Reddy’s account of the significance of her first hit song:

“I couldn’t find any songs that said what I thought being a woman was about.“I thought about all these strong women in my family who had gotten through the Depression and world wars and drunken, abusive husbands.

“There was nothing in music that reflected that.

“The only songs were ‘I Feel Pretty’ or that dreadful song ‘Born A Woman.’ (The 1966 hit by Sandy Posey had observed that if you’re born a woman ‘you’re born to be stepped on, lied to, cheated on and treated like dirt….)

“These are not exactly empowering lyrics.

“I certainly never thought of myself as a songwriter, but it came down to having to do it.”


The accomplishments of the U.N. year was creation of Womenwatch.

Womenwatch,” defines itself as,  “the central gateway to information and resources on the promotion of gender equality and the empowerment of women throughout the United Nations system, including the United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women (UN Women), the United Nations Secretariat, regional commissions, funds, programmes, specialized agencies, and academic and research institutions.”


Despite the U.N.’s good intentions as I write today young women are being sold into slavery in Monaco and throughout northern Africa. Their illegal importation as inexpensive prostitutes in Spain has become so significant a problem that London’s Financial Times reports on it regularly.


Depending on one’s views on the relative effectiveness comparing international principles to music, Helen Reddy’s legacy has reaped astonishing results for all of us who have come to country music in large part because of the earthquake-like significance of Kris Kristopherson’s role as a country singer. Worth a trip to the library is a reading of an old New York Times Magzine profile of Kristopherson. The article reported that Kristopherson quit the Army Academy at West Point to sleep on the streets at Nashville only to discover to wide surprise:

There is a market for long long country music–for songs that have something to say.

Consider this recording of Sunday Morning a song that was an astonishment to have been recorded at all let alone become a best seller. (“Long songs don’t work here in Nashville, son.”)

There is, for example, Shania Twain singing: Honey I’m Home.”


It is getting late. I realize that I will not get to everything I want to say in this posting, especially the therapeutic effect of country music. Ever since Freud asked the question What do women want? the answer is not apparent to those of us who are men. My tribute to Shania Twain will end temporarily. Look for Shania Twain Tribute 2 coming on this site.

I hereby conclude by providing two music videos:


-Joel Solkoff

Copyright 2013 by Joel Solkoff. All rights reserved.





Today I am 66 years old


I am 66 years old today.

I was listening to a George Strait song at midnight Troubadour.

Troubadour is a song in which an older and wiser George Strait sings:

“I still feel 25 most of the time./ I still raise a little cain with the boys./ Honky Tonks and pretty women, But Lord I’m still right there with ’em / Singing above the crowd and the noise…”


Many friends do not understand that my musical passions consist both of Mozart and country music.

As if Glenn Gould playing Mozart piano sonatas and George Strait singing Troubadour does not present enough cause to question my focus…As if…


Speaking of loss of focus: I am translating Psalm 2 from the Hebrew. “Why do the nations gather?” the apocryphal David begins.

Why indeed? This is not a happy poem despite the fact that the Hebrew sounds are so beautiful.


A week ago today, I gave away my elder daughter Joanna Marie Solkoff to marry Jade Kosmos Phillips. Above is a photo of me giving her away—a photo that looks as though she is giving me away.

Joanna and Jade are on a two-week honeymoon to South Africa.

My younger daughter Amelia, maid of honor, is now back in rural Spain—having called me on Wednesday from the Chicago airport before boarding a non-stop to Madrid.


It is odd in a way I cannot explain having grown children.

Now I am back from Mebane, North Carolina, named for an American Revolution General whom I expect helped General Green become defeated at Greensboro and hence, defeated, have the city in which he lost named after him.


This photograph from right to left shows my sister Sarah Schmerler, her son Asher Simonson, and her husband and Asher’s father Robert Simonson.

In the background and foreground is a display of the sense of elegance the wedding brought in North Carolina’s Alamance County a 45 minute ride from the Raleigh/Durham airport.


The air trip of nearly 1,000 miles from small State College Airport to Delta’s hub at Detroit, to Raleigh/Durham was difficult.

I do not want to dwell on the difficulties involved in a paraplegic traveling by air from the small regional airport University Park Airport.

The reality is that through the diligent efforts of the splendid personnel at the airport under the effective leadership of James Meyer the airport made it possible for me to attend my daughter Joanna’s wedding and give her away.

I recognize the planes must be small, that the aisle chair is a necessity, and that I cannot bring with me heavy durable medical equipment, but the Amigo Travel Scooter is light enough to fly with me.

The security issues require people with disabilities such as I to present ourselves an hour earlier than everyone else because the security for disabled people in wheelchairs is significantly tighter than for able individuals.

Sadly, security issues are a federal matter. Indeed, Rep. Issa is currently looking into this.


There are many ways in which all of us can help improve University Park Airport. The term “improvement” is not meant to criticize.

James Meyer and his excellent staff are running a very user-friendly airport.

The individuals who work for the airlines went out of their way for me. I flew Delta and I could not be happier about the quality of service to me as someone who is wheel chair bound.

Our airport is excellent. We need to spend more time at the airport and learn to understand it and appreciate it. Without our airport we could not obtain many of the items State College residents so clearly want and go to restaurants etc. to obtain. There is even an Irving’s at the airport.


I am currently way behind in my work producing two academic papers. Academic writing is difficult to sustain for long periods of time and so I digress by….

Fortunately, tomorrow, Sunday Sonali and I will talk about the Bowers Project Paper and soon we will deliver it. Praise, the Lord.


My health is of less and less of concern. I am appreciative of the fact that I survived the jaws of death. There are times I think twice about my ability to recover from major surgery. I go through periods of considerable pain. Dr. Russo’s nurse and my physician both agree I am doing fine and instruct me to have patience that the recovery will arrive, but slowly.


–Joel Solkoff, State College, PA, USA

Copyright 2013 by Joel Solkoff. All rights reserved.



I still feel 25 most of the time.
I still raise a little cain with the boys.
Honky Tonks and pretty women,
But Lord I’m still right there with ’em
Singing above the crowd and the noise…

Sometimes I feel like Jesse James
Still tryin’ to make a name.
Knowing nothing’s gonna change what I am.
I was a young troubador
When I wrote in on a song.
And I’ll be an old troubador when I’m gone…

Well the truth about a mirror…
Is that a damn old mirror…
Don’t really tell the whole truth.
It don’t show what’s deep inside.
Or read between the lines.
And it’s really no reflextion of my youth…

Sometimes I feel like Jesse James
Still tryin’ to make a name.
Knowing nothing’s gonna change what I am.
I was a young troubador
When I wrote in on a song.
I’ll be an old troubador when I’m gone…

I was a young troubador
When I wrote in on a song.
And I’ll be an old troubador when I’m gone…
I’ll be an old troubador when I’m gone…