Thursday, March 26, 2009

How lost is lost?

Riding home on the subway today, I got distracted by reading Bill McKibben on knick-knack factories in China and locally milled oats in the Lake Champlain Valley and ended up in Queens. Which is not where I live. At all. Even as I rode off of my intended route, I noticed unfamiliar stations passing with little more than a nod - "23rd St. and Ely? I never noticed that before..." And then I lifted my head out of my book long enough to realize I wasn't in Kansas - or Manhattan - anymore.

One day, Charles Dickens saw a most peculiar word painted on the inside of a window.

For those of you who are still working on the translation, it says “coffee room”, or at least it would from the outside looking in. Later, G.K. Chesterton, another British author, heard of Dickens’ experience and took this term “mooreeffoc” to denote anything that becomes odd and unfamiliar when looked at from a new angle.

Walking today from uptown from down, starting at Wall St. and wending along Broadway, I had a similar mooreeffoc moment when I arrived at Canal St. Unexpectedly, like someone had folded the map to cut out in-between terrain, a wrinkle not in time but space. An "I didn't realize it was so close" moment, like seeing the topography of a well-known place through an airplane window.

Xavier plays Pitt in the Sweet 16 tonight in Boston at the new Garden. My brother, parents, and cousin will be in attendance. Wish that I were there. Go X!

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Catch a Fire

For the first time since Aught Eight, I saw the turtles out today in Morningside Park, sunning on the rocks along the edge of the pond and floating out in the water and taking part in relaxing turtle activities. I take this as a good omen.

This year, St. Patrick's Day brings a sense of floating: a world adrift in a bellicose, uncertain time; sliding masses of humanity through migrations, excisements, shallow-rooted wanderings; and optimistic lanterns wave-lashed yet speckle the dark.

And today feels like spring. Spring. Truly Scrumptious. [Side note: did everyone besides me know that the authors of Chitty Chitty and Casino Royale were one in the same?]

Only 19 days till Opening Day. Light till nearly 7 PM. Turtles up and about. Spring is here. Sure, we could yet get lashed with the cat-o-nine-storms, but today I heard the thwap of baseball on leather gloves, uncreaking after a winter's nap. Like turtles, another good omen. Hope you too are floating a little lighter in your shoes, be they have toes curled back or otherwise.

In honor of St. Patrick's adopted island and the graces all around us, from Gerard Manley Hopkins, Irish Jesuit mystic poet - all great things:

34. ‘As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies dráw fláme’
AS kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies dráw fláme;
As tumbled over rim in roundy wells
Stones ring; like each tucked string tells, each hung bell’s
Bow swung finds tongue to fling out broad its name;
Each mortal thing does one thing and the same: 5
Deals out that being indoors each one dwells;
Selves—goes itself; myself it speaks and spells,
Crying Whát I do is me: for that I came.
Í say móre: the just man justices;
Kéeps gráce: thát keeps all his goings graces; 10
Acts in God’s eye what in God’s eye he is—
Chríst—for Christ plays in ten thousand places,
Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his
To the Father through the features of men’s faces.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Mother Nature don't do bailouts

(photo courtesy:

Thomas Friedman asks, in his Op-Ed in today’s New York Times, “What if the crisis of 2008 represents something much more fundamental than a deep recession? What if it’s telling us that the whole growth model we created over the last 50 years is simply unsustainable economically and ecologically and that 2008 was when we hit the wall – when Mother Nature and the market both said: ‘No more.’”

For years, I’ve fed on writers who have shouted similar messages from their pulpits, smaller and less amplified than the New York Times usually but pulpits nonetheless. I have long been a convert to various strains of “Less can be More” credos of consumption, if at times admittedly lapsed in my dedication. Bill McKibben and Wendell Berry before him have long argued for a combination of personal and collective action to counteract prevailing destructive forces of contemporary capitalism; Gary Snyder and Annie Dillard are champions of the wild that is out there and in us; E.B. White examined work, craft, and community; Henry David Thoreau filled reams in an attempt to walk the walk he was talking.

Recently, I’ve sat down with more sobering fare: The World Without Us by Alan Weisman, I Am Legend starring Will Smith to name two. Both ask related questions: How might we push ourselves over the cliff edge? What will the ensuing post-apocalyptic world look like? A related, though ultimately more uplifting movie is the fantastic Whale Rider [If you haven’t yet, see it.]. A subplot that shook me was the story of whales. Whales elude conveyance – by saying that a house is large, blue, and south-facing, have I showed you what kind of home it is? Whales, like the dolphins in A Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy trilogy, may yet leave. I think I should resume a previous habit of answering, whenever asked, “What animal would you choose to be?,” – a whale.

While I can’t swim like whales, what lessons can I learn from them? Put another way, how can I better walk the walk of a concientious consumer/educator/friend/citizen? What can I do to help restore balance? What am I, what are we doing differently in 2009 that will help us climb up to greater stability, sustainability, and symbiosis? Symbiosis?

Yes -- "sym·bi·o·sis, noun 2. a cooperative, mutually beneficial relationship between two people or groups." To this definition I would add “or systems” – educational, health care, political, financial, energy, industrial, military, transportation, commercial... What systems will we create to ensure that Mother Nature and the market, our families and communities can look back and say, confidently and gracefully: “Never again.”

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Swing Low, Sweet Chariot

The image in my head is sepia-toned, muted colors in low lamplight. I’m maybe 5 years old, lying on the floor while my grandfather sits beside me, in my parents’ bedroom because of the out-of-town guests. His voice is low, strong, voluminous like an organ in church, claret. He sings an old spiritual almost as slow as I can stand it – carrying me softly towards sleep. He doesn’t describe the song or its meaning, doesn’t stop to ask me what I think or how I feel, doesn’t belabor his obvious love of singing – creating music with nothing less than his own voice. I feel safe, cared for, a part of a shared tradition. Back in West Virginia, I know he sings with choirs at church, at work, has done so for years, but right now my grandfather is singing for me.

Lawrence G. Hess would have turned 93 this past weekend. He would have had some short, sly, witty thing to say about it, too, had he been able to see the day. He was a good man, a kind father, a loyal employee, a brilliant chemical engineer, a devoted Catholic, an adventurous spirit, and a passionate fan of Notre Dame.

Happy Birthday, Grandad. We miss you. We hold you in our hearts.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Come on up, lay your hands in mine

To present any coherent collection of my thoughts and recollections from the past election-into-elect-into-Inauguration season is beyond me these days. I would, however, like to fire out some ramblings, errant-style, before the first heat of this historic moment passes completely.

To start, here are some jottings I made late in the evening after gathering with friends to watch the election results come in, back on November 4th. We met at an apartment in our neighborhood and then, as it was clear the rising was upon us, we joined a thronging mass of humanity up on Harlem's historic 125th Street to ring in the new era...


The hope is tangible. The joint is jumpin'. The fireworks are poppin'. Car horns and beams of light and chants and clapping and screams and high school girls dancing in the streets and traffic thrown off all over the area. All TVs I hear through open windows on an unseasonably warm night playing the same speech, in loud volume - people cheering out doorways and from rooftops and in living rooms and on street corners and more. The city pulses more than I've ever felt it - a throbbing "Yes we can" and "Yes we did", the realization of dreams of generations, of national pride unparallelled in my experience - "a new kind of patriotism" - we all in this together. Even those who did not vote for him, he WILL reach out to you. An articulate president again, an intelligent president again...

"I may not get there with you, but we'll get there."

Campaign songs blaring from car windows, on the crowd's lips, from the speakers of the rally at 125. 40,000 people at the New York State Office Building. Traffic is completely stopped. Riding in a cab, heading south away from the growing crowd along the main drag of Harlem - no need to hyperbolize the significance of the neighborhood in African-American history and US history in general (Is this a dream deferred realized?!) - riding in that cab, passing celebrating gaggles on sidewalks spilling into the street, buoyed by the spirit of the evening, listening to Barack on the radio, turning it up and nodding, clapping along with the cabbie.

And back at home still I hear the cheers, the honks, the yells - I imagine I will into the night. It's 12:28 and we are mere minutes into a new era. Fireworks. Even dogs getting in on the act - barking up a storm in fits and starts, lulls when the human voices have settled back from the ripples heading out.

Voices on the radio, calling in from their corners of celebration:
"America is full of wonders."
"Everybody is smiling. People are proud to be American again..."
"I have never seen the city so alive.'

Rep. John Lewis - "I don't know if I have any tears left to cry this week."

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Manicotti and Musketeers

There is a restaurant on Arthur Avenue in the Bronx that advertises “Fine Family Dinning.” Does that mean you can bring the kids and let them make a racket? Is “dinning” like “dimming”? Or more like “dunning”? Neither of those sounds good to me. What does sound good is, “Hey, I’m going up to eat at Dominick’s on Arthur Avenue. You want to join me?”

I did have the pleasure of eating at Dominick’s this past weekend with my brother, father, and L. We combined the gustatory delights of that menu-less family-style Italian eatery with a basketball game at Fordham, vs. Xavier. Our cousin Mike is a trainer for the Musketeers and, as always, it was nice to see a friendly face on the opposing team’s bench. Go Rams! [Photo is a little fuzzy because either a) the kind woman sitting near us was sitting in a Sharper Image chair when she took it; b) the lens was covered with castor oil; or c) pick 'em.]

Dominick’s, for those unfortunate many who have not had the pleasure, is a treasure of the Bronx’s Little Italy neighborhood, a collection of bakeries, restaurants, specialty stores, and the like. Some of the restaurants have fine dinning, others no. Regardless, as yet another outpost of il bel paese, Arthur Avenue ranks with Court Street in Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn, and the most famous Little Italy in NYC centered around Mulberry St. in lower Manhattan. 2009 – a year to shake off lethargy and explore those infrequently visited spots of your place in space. A hedgerow, a side street, a nearby valley, a borough. Get out there! Don’t forget your decoder ring.

And watch out for misspelled signs. They’re everywhere.


One sign you could not miss today:

C. H. A. N. G. E.

As one blogger put i: Black president, y'all.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Something in the air

Change will not come if we wait for some other person or some other time. We are the ones we've been waiting for.
We are the change that we seek.
~ President-elect Barack Obama

2009 is the year of change, if we make it so. I’ve gone walkabout for too long now and it is time to come home to writing in this space again. I don’t know if anyone else missed “the old bike” as much as me, but I’m going to get back on, start pedaling, and see what happens. I resolve to change my no-good lay-about writing ways.

President-elect Obama’s inauguration is next week in our nation’s capitol; I plan on attending some of the weekend’s pre-festivities and look forward to sharing stories afterwards. Additionally, I resolve to be more conscientious of the part I must play in turning Senator Obama’s rhetoric to action. What role do I play? What about you?


Sometimes old adages prove true. “The more things change, the more they stay the same.” Example #1: it is interesting and encouraging to see a growing consciousness not only of more sustainable ways of doing things, but also of the need for a fundamental examination of the motivations behind those actions. As Sandra Steingraber points out in her essay in the current Orion magazine, the increasing trend towards Velcro and Croc-style slip-on shoes weakens our self-reliance by removing knot tying as an early childhood skill and deepens our petro-reliance by adding yet more oil-based products to our lives. Knot-tying as self-reliance? Yes. While arguments can be made for ease and comfort, do we not lose when we trade map for GPS, pick-up for delivery, post-cards for Facebook? The path of least resistance can be difficult to climb in reverse.

So what is staying the same? The ability of some old-fashioned technology to solve more than one problem at the same time. Sighting houses for light can also greatly increase energy efficiency. Reusing materials salvaged from the garbage cuts down on landfill and keeps your wallet fat. Drying your clothes on an indoor line in a winter NYC apartment lowers your electric bill and helps humidify a dry space. A little bit. Any which way you slice it, this last activity, drying clothes sans electricity, is a new endeavor we’re trying in 2009 – commonplace technology in many parts, outlawed practice in some, exciting pastime in a my TV-free apartment. But that’s another story.

Interested in learning more about clotheslines? Check this out. I resolve to pedal around and check more things out. For example: will President Obama plant an organic farm on the lawn of the White House? I don’t know, but thanks to my friend Dan I now know that these folks hope so – and more power to ‘em!

2009. Winds of change are blowing. Reap ‘em.