Not exactly someone to invite into your home

You can’t unsubscribe from Martha Stewart’s email list.  I’ve tried.  You just can’t do it.

 

It’s almost like she got out of prison and decided, “OK, world.  You locked me up.  So I’m going to gather email addresses like there’s no tomorrow – or at least like there’s five months in the pen and two years’ probation – and I am going to send you offers at least three times a month for my magazine and every spin-off I dreamed up while I was sitting in that pastel-colored cell.  You go ahead and try.  Once you’re mine, you’re mine.”

 

“Now…” you ask me, “what were you doing on her email list in the first place?”

 

For that, I take the 5th.

Sucking his thumb, or not

Teak decided he didn’t want to stay and watch the dogs in the dog run outside the American Museum of Natural History, so we walked alongside it, I holding his left hand so he could suck his right thumb – or not, depending on his mood (he wanted the option) – headed toward the new Shake Shack, which had recently opened on 77th and Columbus and had provided promotional paper bags at yesterday’s Halloween Hop at P.S. 9.

 

The air cooled our chests through our shirts, which were bared to the October weather, as our jackets were unbuttoned and, in his case, unzipped.  We talked about God, parents and Harry Potter, with Teak ranking us in that order of priority.  I asked him why he liked Harry Potter.

 

“Because Carter does. …And I want to like what Carter does.”  I wondered if that reasoning extended to how Teak felt about God.

 

Forty-five minutes earlier, we had sat in the small theater off to the side of the ground floor of the Rose Space Center and watched a 7-minute film about black holes.  We learned that if we were to cross an event horizon outside a black hole, the collapsed star would inexorably suck us in, and in less than one-thousandth of a second our atoms “would be crushed into infinite density.”  Teak watched, sucked his thumb and, when the movie was over, said, “Let’s go to the space store.”

 

I negotiated a quick trip to the hall of Saurischian Dinosaurs, including the Tyrannosaurus Rex and other favorites.  Teak and I took more photos there, and he wanted especially to include one of him in front of a painting portraying a T-Rex eating the flesh off its prey.

 

Perhaps it was this scene that made me hungry for a shake.  We walked past the dog run and the two single women with their fleece vests and Starbucks venti lattes who were facing east and their pets, each species getting to know one another a little better, and Teak and I discussed whether to get our own shake or split one.  We decided to split.

 

It wasn’t to be.

 

When we got there, we found a line that was out the door and around the corner.

 

Teak pinched his face into a mock grimace, then smiled, and we agreed to skip the shake and walk to Broadway to take the bus a few short blocks north, because his legs were tired.

 

 

photo:  larrygerbrandt

Stand down

When I lived on Avent Ferry Road in Raleigh, which ran south from the campus of North Carolina State University, I would wake up at seven each morning and press “play” on my stereo, prompting Joni Mitchell’s voice to evoke “Morning Morgantown” as I rolled out of bed with a smile.  Following were “For Free” and “Conversation” and then the album title song “Ladies of the Canyon.”

 

Little did I know she was counterculture.  Nor that she released these songs in 1970, when I was turning seven, maybe during the winter when I remember losing my first tooth as I prepared to sled down the hill at the East Meadow in Central Park.  The war was on, Nixon was in the White House, and the Kent State shootings happened that May, the month of said seventh birthday.  I was as oblivious to all this in 1970 as I was in my senior year of 1984-1985 that in pressing “play” and hearing Joni’s voice while I awoke happily in the sunny three bedroom I shared with Rex and Jerry, both mechanical engineers, I was preparing my mind for a day of counterculture:  I, the English major, who had started at N.C. State in the rules-world of Mathematics and then traversed the earthy Geology, only to wind up in the liberal arts, in which I learned that as long as I came up with a thesis and defended it properly, I would garner an “A.”

 

Meanwhile, Rex and Jerry wrestled into the night with mind-vicing problems of thermodynamics, where the right answer was sought through the briars and hedges of calculations and considered reasoning.  Often, I would hear Rex curse from his bedroom in the wee hours, while I typed away on D.H. Lawrence, as free to create as his characters were to romp in the woods with each other.

 

But I wasn’t exactly a rebel.

 

Once, however, I dressed up as a homeless person and, observed by a teacher’s assistant in my sociology class, spent three hours begging on Hillsborough Street, the campus’s northern border.  I collected about $15, not bad in 1984 dollars.  Then I wrote an exposé for the school newspaper.  I made judgments about people in the article:  people who didn’t give or avoided me were evil and heartless, especially those who obviously had means, like the man I noted who parked his Mercedes and then walked right past me.  Some of what was his was owed to me.  Or so I thought.  This thinking reflected more my philosophical state that year than my being an erstwhile homeless person.  For I was not homeless; rather, I was a liberal arts major.

 

A professor who substituted one day for my normal prof – I believe it was a class on American poetry from 1900 to the present – was Jewish, and at some point he went on a tangent and told us how the Jews had the practice of catching their tears in small cups and then putting these cups on their mantles.  I have learned since then of the belief, expressed in the Talmud, of the Cup of Tears in heaven, that as it’s filled with the tears of the world and that when it overflows, the Messiah will come.  If this professor called attention to the Messiah, I don’t recall.  I was more interested in the raw humanity he was outlining, that people would actually save their own tears.  It sounded like poetry, so I liked it.

 

Perhaps there was no more counterculture act, though, than my protesting the execution of Velma Barfield in November 1984.  I had been to a forum on campus where a panel of teachers and thinkers was disputing whether or not she should be put to death, the first woman to be executed in 22 years.  Having been fully immersed into the thinking of my sociology professor, whose husband was an unemployed Baptist minister who was switching to Presbyterian and was organizing his fellow laborers at Black and Decker, where he loaded trucks, I held a position at the forum toward capital punishment that pivoted on two assumptions:  that all punishment meted out by our justice system should be rehabilitative and, if so, how could capital punishment fulfill the first assumption since there would no longer be a person to rehabilitate after it was administered.  I stood up during the audience Q&A and asked the question.  A teacher who was ostensibly against capital punishment nevertheless blasted my first premise and then gave his intellectual reasoning against the issue.  In any event, I felt sheepish, and that my heart had led my head.

 

Soon after, closer to the date of her execution, I dressed in my only suit (grey wool), took a homemade protest sign, and bicycled down to the Governor’s Mansion.  Sitting down across the street from Jim Hunt’s office, I held up my sign and got lots of honks from passing motorists – probably in disagreement with me (most locally were in favor of her death) – and eventually, after about 20 to 30 minutes, a gentle but clear command from the police to move along.

 

Velma Barfield killed people and ruined others’ lives.  She also reputedly became a born-again Christian during her imprisonment.  The second point wouldn’t have made a difference to me at the time, since I had been spiritually searching at that point for about 18 months but put no stock in someone’s theistic faith.  I had been to a Unitarian church a few times at that point and thought that it was more important what the person did for others and the world.  My main interaction with a Christian had been a Haitian man I met in class who came over one night to cook for me and my roommates and prepared chicken.  I had been on a vegetarian kick, and he calmly told me that all foods were provided by God for us to eat.  Dinner smelled good, so I stopped being a vegetarian for the night.

 

Velma Barfield was executed, Rex died of cancer two years after graduation, and I don’t know what happened to Jerry.  My charitable spirit was extended to ideas more than to people.

 

Nevertheless, what my foray into English literature did was it forced me to understand the world from the standpoint of the other.  In high school, my friend and I made a list of all the ethnic groups we hated, using each group’s most incendiary derogative to identify and distinguish it.  We laughed as we read and re-read it.

 

But then there were the Cup of Tears; Trent the gay black student, one of the first homosexuals I had ever known; Velma Barfield who was granted mercy from above but endured justice from below; Willa Cather and James Baldwin, whose lifestyles were as exotic to me as their writing was convicting; Jonathan Swift, who informed me that women as pure and angelic as Celia also defecated; William Carlos Williams, who could find beauty behind a dumpster; and my classmates and professors, who collectively understood all the characters and writers I did not, giving them credibility in the world’s eyes, making their worldviews – if not legitimate – then at least vocalized so that I could hear them for myself.

 

My task late at night, then, was not to find the answer to the math problem.  It was not to do the finding at all.

 

It was learning to remain open, so that I could be found.

 

 

 

photo:  lemonade

Softening up on the Mohs Scale

I met Abdul today.  He is the hot dog man outside of River Run Playground at 83rd Street in Riverside Park.  I’ve bought probably $100 worth of hot dogs and ice cream bars for the boys in recent months from him, though my total might be closer to $500.  Not sure.  I finally decided to ask him his name.  Don’t know why today as opposed to any other day.  I gave his partner a hard time last weekend for selling me a “Candy Center Crunch” bar – like a chocolate-covered vanilla ice cream bar with a chocolate candy center; your basic heart attack for children – and it was frozen through and as hard as granite.  I asked for my money back, and the man convinced me to take another ice cream choice – this one soft as gypsum rather than somewhere between feldspar and quartz as was the other.

 

Abdul asked if I was American, and where I was born.

 

“Here in New York.  And where were you born?”

 

“Bangladesh.  Been here.  18 years.  Have babies…one baby, college.  Downtown Manhattan.  Two more babies.  77th Street.  Computer school.”

 

He grinned as he usually does when he sees us coming, but this time his grin was wider when he described them.  I noticed the details in the rough yellow and brown stains between his teeth in the bottom row, which always showed more than the top row.

 

But I looked into the eyes of a father for the first time, not the co-conspirator who sold my son a rock for $2.

 

 

photo:  dwightsghost

I can live without the personal ICBM

Dear Senators McCain and Obama:

 

It’s 4:15 a.m. as I write; I couldn’t sleep.

 

For now, Senator McCain still has my vote.  But I am deeply distraught at an answer that each of you gave to what I thought was a critical question at Tuesday’s debate.  It was from “Fiora,” a child of the Depression, who asked how you would call Americans to sacrifice given our current crisis.

 

I think there is no more sublime task than a leader’s asking his people to sacrifice, yet each of you missed the opportunity.  Senator Obama, you came a little closer to stepping up, but Senator McCain, you were off by a mile.

 

Senator McCain, after acknowledging the sacrifice of our sons and daughters at war – an appropriate salute – you talked about cutting back or freezing government programs.  You said that you had already saved me and my family (and a few others) $6.8 billion by cutting a deal for an Air Force Tanker.  This is really tough to stomach, Senator.  You see, I really wanted a Stealth Bomber for Christmas and even had a nice spot picked out in Central Park to land it.  Now, I learn, I may have to “sacrifice.”

 

Then you went into EarmarksEarmarksEarmarks.  Few people care about earmarks, Senator.  Perhaps we should.  But nobody is talking about the overhead projector in the Chicago Symphony for one million dollars while we stand around the water cooler.  (Few of our organizations can afford the fresh water anymore, anyway.)

 

Sacrificing government programs is not individual sacrifice, which is what Fiora and I wanted to hear about.  It’s not the hard, prophetic call we need.  When the follow-up question came about what to do about Americans’ indebtedness, you spoke about Obama’s tax plan.

 

Senator Obama, you came a little closer to a satisfying answer, by acknowledging that the call after 9/11 to “shop” by President Bush should have been a call to serve.  Later in your answer you spoke about doubling the Peace Corp.  That’s good.  (Still more about service than sacrifice, but it’ll preach.)  But then you went into your standard talk on energy production and energy use, without specifics on any “sacrifice” this would entail for Americans.

 

The irony in how you each answered this question is that we are facing this economic crisis precisely because Americans have not sacrificed and have instead indulged ourselves.  We are fat with debt, consumer-culture-driven need, and a feeling of entitlement, and we are encouraged to continue in this vein by a cowardly government leadership that coddles us into thinking that “wants” are in fact “rights.”

 

Here are some suggestions I have, that either of you could have said, but didn’t:

 

  1. To all my fellow Americans, give money to your local charity.  Many of you give to a church, some to a synagogue or house of worship.  Others to the Red Cross or Sierra Club.  Many of you still have your jobs and have income.  However, each job we see disappear in the financial sector is usually accompanied by the loss of three other jobs (restaurants, dry cleaners, car washers, etc.).  This crisis will adversely affect those among us who are poorer.  Therefore, start giving some of your money away to help others now affected or who will be as we see the massive ripple effect.  I encourage you each to consider your responsibility to your neighbors.  And to those of you with significant means, if you’re not giving away a substantial portion of what you make from the bounty of this land and the hard work of those also responsible for your success, then you are hoarding.
  2. Enlist in the military.  There will always be a need to protect this country and also to aid other countries in this global neighborhood that might be bullied or help peoples who are oppressed by brutal dictators.  The gift of your life to protect or save another’s cannot be trumped.
  3. Don’t shop so much.  If you agree that President Bush’s call was unfortunate after 9/11 and we are faced with an equally critical economic problem now, then spend less and instead give to those in need, save for the future, and pay down your personal debt.  Instead of buying Christmas or holiday presents this year, decide as families and friends to help a neighbor in need.  For example, I know a man who decided to send someone else’s child to summer camp.  That’s being a neighbor.
  4. Related to that, stop using your credit cards if you can’t pay off the entire balance when the bill comes.  That’s one of the attitudes and habits that got us into this mess.
  5. Owning a home is a privilege, not a right.  You have to be able to pay for it over time with a sound plan.  If your income is uncertain (welfare and unemployment checks, etc.), then you must avoid foolish commitments, because there are callous lenders who don’t care whether you are turned out onto the street one, five, or ten years later.  Be willing to defer this dream until your finances can handle it.
  6. Fiora, I know this is tough stuff.  But you asked, and I think your question is the best of the night.

 

I am neither a policy wonk nor a politician nor a crusader.  I’ve also been bankrupt before (1994), so my earnestness is born not only of disgust at these candidates’ removed answers but also from the ugliness and shame of going through financial hard times myself.

 

But now, I’m mad!  MAD!  I’m mad that these two guys didn’t step up and answer that most pointed of questions.  It was a hard question, but it was also a softball question for one of them to really shine as our next leader, especially in light of this crisis.  McCain is behind in the polls and had nothing to lose; he didn’t go for it.  Obama is ahead and decided not to risk it.

 

In their answers, they themselves sacrificed nothing – neither reputation nor votes.

 

But I do know someone who sacrificed everything and then said, Follow me.

 

Strangely enough, his call to sacrifice, while difficult, is the most refreshing call of all.  It allows us to get out of ourselves, to say “no” with an unchained mind to all the things and thoughts that cloud our thinking and dreaming and keep us from the true happiness that each of us seeks.  That happiness is found in being connected to the One who gave up everything for our sakes, while we were all still pursuing our own gain, our own selfish ends.  Connection to that One is all we need; everything we get on top of that is gravy.

 

Perhaps if one of you, Senators, stood up and called us to a purely selfless sacrifice like that, instead of repeating limp campaign platitudes and bromides, I’d be able to sleep better.

 

 

photo:  phil h

Learning not to stuff pizza up my nose

My high school girlfriend, who was my first love, was also a Darwinian:  she believed that her lack of i-teeth, missing from birth and substituted with believable falsies, was an indication that she – to use her mother’s words – was an example of the next step in evolution.  She said this as a matter of fact, without pride.  It was all the more unusual in that she was Presbyterian.

 

This also made me feel somewhat…primatial…because I had been born with my i-teeth.  But to tell you the truth, I probably gave it three minutes of thought – no, 30 seconds – for my mind was not focused on evolution or any other social theory.  I was a high school senior after all, with a pretty blonde girlfriend.

 

It strikes me as odd now, though, that I had so little interest in the big questions of life.  My world of inquiry consisted of looking at photos in surfing magazines and dreaming about my first sex, and even the next level up from my realm, politics, was somewhat remote to me.  Jefferson Haynes, John Cranston and Ted Blakeley, the three horsemen of conservatism at Trinity School on West 91st Street, used to sit in the library and read The New York Times.  The Op-Ed page no less.  They knew world leaders’ names and used them in conversation.  (But I can guarantee you they didn’t know the difference between Waimea Bay and Pipeline.)  Mrs. Van Zandt, the librarian, would hover around and dote over them, certainly pleased that these three young men with their pressed blue blazers and hair cut above their white-collared shirts were preparing themselves for a life of public service.  (Jefferson later worked for Bob Dole, but John became a liberal and went into real estate development.  He may have become a conservative again in the last decade or two.)

 

All this went right past me.  It was not as though my parents were disinterested.  Quite the opposite.  They were typical Upper East Siders:  culturally, politically and socially engaged.  My main impression of them, however, was that marching on Washington was always trumped by a good cocktail party.

 

And so my political involvement, like my interest in whether I was descended from apes or Adam, was dormant.  Until college, when the latter was awakened.

 

I was sitting on the “Brickyard” at N.C. State University as a sophomore and listening to one of the itinerant preachers who used to do the college circuit.  There was one who would come and was young and fiery and railed against oral sex, comparing it to stuffing pizza up your nose.  (It made sense in context.)  There was another who, bare-chested and holding a live rooster, exhorted us to move out of cities and into rural areas, settling in small communes.  (Which, ostensibly, would one day become cities and therefore be uninhabitable.)  But on this day I believe we were hearing from Brother Jed, who readers of “Mead on Manhattan” may have heard on their own campuses, so widespread was his travel during the 80s.

 

What he said was lost on me, in terms of my long-term retention of it.  But the look on my face must have drawn the attention of a fellow student named Artie, who sat down next to me when Jed had finished calling us sinners, and Artie said, wisely, “You seem to be searching.”  I have always thought this to be one of the best opening lines to any spiritual conversation.  I mean, he had at least a 50% chance of being right.

 

We talked for at least two hours; it was my first spiritual conversation.  I was searching; Artie had pegged me right.  Perhaps he had guessed wrong several times that day, but he got a live one in me.  We talked about how he used to be gay and now had a serious girlfriend, how the devil would try to tempt him during calculus to call out “What do derivatives have to do with the kingdom of God!”, how he read the Bible, how he prayed.

 

I went back to my dorm room and called Jake, a pastor friend I had met at my best friend’s college earlier in the year.  I wanted to ask him if what I had heard from Jed and spoken about with Artie meant I had to stop sleeping with my girlfriend.  (Not the same one missing the i-teeth; this one had hers.)

 

Looking back, I realize that Jake gave me an unloving answer.

 

For in his response, he affirmed who Jesus was and the love that Jesus had for us, but I went away without a sense of my sin.  It would be years – 10 years to be exact – before I confronted the reality of the way I was living.  That was a rude awakening and one which, had it been earlier, might have saved a failing marriage and helped me avoid some life ills.  But Jake gave me half the truth.  And half the truth – the love of Jesus without the reason for his sacrifice, or the harshness of his sacrifice without the awareness of the depth of his love – is no truth at all.

 

Artie had been a bit odd, to be frank.  We never met again, nor do I know where he is today.  But he risked offending me by giving me the whole truth, the truth which I returned to when I was ready to hear it in its totality.

 

 

photo:  raafje