Watching the Ball Drop

The patina of the paper is shifting from beige toward brown, but it is still supple to the touch. I lift it down from its place on the top of the bookcase, where it has found a home since our move three years ago. It’s my copy of the New York Times, VOL. CXLIX…No.51,254 dated Saturday, January 1, 2000. I picked it up in Penn Station at 12:45 AM that day on my way home from watching the ball drop at Times Square–the launch of a new millennium.

WP_20131231_001It was the one and only time in my life [so far] that I, who am as close to a native New Yorker as anyone, ventured into the Times Square New Years Eve throng. There seems to be an inborn reticence in NY natives to engage in any activity that smacks of tourism. Any activity that your cousin Clem from Iowa regards as a “must-do” while he is staying in your digs immediately becomes a “no-go” for a true native. Thus we have legions of Brooklynites who have never visited the Statue of Liberty they see out of their apartment windows, or attended a performance at the Met, or been in Times Square December 31st at midnight. Thus it took me 57 years to make the hour-long trip in from Long Island, where I was pastoring a suburban church. It was years before the notion of a “bucket list” became vogue, but I did feel that I should have the experience before I died.

But where there is a push, often there is a pull as well. I was attracted by the historicity of turn of a millennium and all the hoopla/anxiety going around. You may recall that there were expressed fears that computer systems would shut down because they had neither the programming nor the capacity to read a date that started with 20.. rather than 19..; a potential vulnerability called Y2k.

WP_20131231_007Microsoft and other makers of computer operating systems even sent out CDs containing corrective programs you could download to your desktop. As the date approached, the hype failed to diminish, with predictions of blackouts and signal disruptions and mass failures of the electrical grid. So I asked myself,”If such things are about to happen, where would I want to be when it did?” I wanted to be at ground zero, watching it all live, not on TV. So I started doing my research and making preparations the day before.

WP_20131231_006It was like preparing for an athletic contest in that you condition your body and your mind. I began a fast, especially from liquids, a slowing of bodily functions. I strategized the best locale for the wait, and alternate sites, set an arrival time target and read up on the crowd control rules. Thus, when 3:00 PM on 12/31/99 arrived I entered an enclosure on 7th Avenue between 49th and 50th Streets dressed for forty-degree temperatures with a backpack containing a portable canvass camp stool, a rain slicker, a pack of granola bars, a thermos of coffee and my cell phone. The rules were simple. Leave the enclosure for any reason and there is no re-entry. You lose your place and probably wind up somewhat relieved, but six blocks further uptown from the ball drop. The subtext to that rule was, “Don’t drink the coffee until after 11:30 PM”. You could stand, sit or lean on the crowd fence, but sleeping on the ground was forbidden. I could have sold my camp stool for several hundred bucks later that night. I had mastered the art of the sitting snooze.

WP_20131231_004My particular block enclosure did not fill up as fast as those up or down from us. It was a reserved space for the party guests at the two hotels occupying that block and the dozen or so of us who showed up in the afternoon were shills for the elites inside.  At 11:30, they poured out of the hotels, and the countdown began in earnest.  Just before, I was on my cell with my oldest son in Seattle, who was watching it all on TV. Of course, he couldn’t quite believe I was actually there. It took the testimony of seven witnesses surrounding me and some crowd noise to make him a believer. The ball descended, the sign “2000″ lit up and flashed and the crowd went wild.

The only blackouts were those experienced by one or two of the hotel party-goers. The gal in the shimmering  green gown next to me remarked, “Gosh, it’s cold out here! I’m going back in.” And with that she and ten other companions bolted for the gates. It was 12:02 AM. Our enclosure emptied quickly and those who didn’t have hotel passes were shuffled over to the #1 subway line two blocks east. Trains were waiting at the platform and took off downtown to Penn Station, where LIRR trains were also waiting to depart east. I paused long enough to grab the Times before boarding and was back home by 1:30 AM.

As Cronkite used to intone: “It was a day like all days, filled with those events that alter and illuminate our times.” And I was there.

Untelevised Holidays

During these Christmas holidays I realize how off-the-grid our family life is. I look around at three generations gathered and I see folks talking, or knitting, or more likely, both at once. They are absorbed into a book or hunched over a table trying to fit puzzle pieces together. On occasion, a phone rings or a smart phone is consulted, but only as a brief interlude. Holiday music or a radio show plays in the background as breads and desserts are cooked and consumed. Photo albums are carted out and paged through. Something is definitely missing.

WP_20131225_010What’s missing from this picture is the huge HDTV flat screen up on the livingroom wall. In fact, it’s not up on any wall–we don’t watch TV. There is no basement den filled with the guys yelling about the missed pass or pontificating on best players of all time or prognosticating  about which team will be raising the Super Bowl five weeks from now. (Do they still turn to the camera and say they are going to Disney World any more?) Somehow, we became unhooked from all of that years ago.

Once that all gets washed out of your bloodstream (and that may take months or years), you come to find out that the world still continues to spin on its axis. A huge hunk of your attention gets freed up to go off exploring other venues of interest. I find myself actually playing some of the hundreds of CD music albums assembled over the years, reacquainting myself with the pleasures they had for me when I bought them. And then I wander over to one of the stacks of partially read books I have erected, pick one at random and start in again at the page before the bookmark. When family or friends drop by, the coffee is poured and we actually talk to one another, a kind of verbal texting, undistracted by the flashing fluorescence of a TV screen on mute.

WP_20131225_003The puzzle table is a part of every family holiday and vacation. During the year, we each keep an eye out for the most challenging puzzles we can find, then make sure they get packed in with the luggage or stored in the closet awaiting their debut. This Christmas it was a 1500-piece tropical undersea scene, solved by the tri-generational team in three days. As each piece is fitted for color and pattern, the puzzlers talk to one another, share solutions and stories, news and views, lubricated by cups of tea and lots of sympathetic vibes. The puzzle doesn’t yell at you or try to sell you some cure-all. It just sits and waits while you try on different perspectives. You can try it on your own, but it’s better together. When we gather again, maybe at the beach this summer, there will be a different puzzle waiting for us; perhaps of some New England winter scene.

Saxy Santa and other Observed Phenomena

The waiting area just outside of the airport arrivals gate is a great observation site from which to view the human drama, especially the day before a major holiday. Relatives, friends and taxi drivers gather at the mouth of the “Gate of no Return” craning for a first glimpse of their special one flowing in the streams of disembarking passengers. It is pure anticipation.

There are rows of seats from which folks periodically pop up to walk over to the Arrivals screen checking for any recent changes. The information on the screen is a work of semi-fiction at best. Flights delayed an hour magically are listed as “On Time” just minutes later, only to actually land an hour late anyway. Others simply disappear from the list on the screen, causing an anxious stir among some of those waiting. Smart phone screens light up and fingers summon the airline websites where the lost flight is found and sighs of relief are breathed. It is anticipation, with an anxious edge.

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The elevator door opens and out into the waiting area steps Santa, carrying an alto sax. Faster than Donner and Biltzen, he launches into a loud rendition of “Santa Claus is Coming to Town”, a real head-turner. Eyes glued to screens big and small detach and fix on the scruffy Santa with the real mustache and really false beard as he belts out the tune, with a few embellishments of his own. I can’t help but watch the startled reactions of those assembled, thinking, “They are either going to love this or I am about to witness a riot.”

It was tremendously interesting to observe the full spectrum of responses. First, there was a uniform delay in reaction–he had caught us all off-guard. We were intensely into our missions, our antennae pointed down through the arrivals gate and he came at us from our blind side. Then there was a recovery of consciousness; we were being entertained [or at least that was the attempt] in a place and at a time when being entertained was a most unanticipated event. Then all sorts of reactions started happening.

Saxy Santa was already into a jazzy “Rudolph, the Red-nosed Reindeer” when smiles began to appear, first on the faces of children, then their parents and even some little feet began to dance to his beat. Among the adults, there was a trickle of laughter, some genuine, some in embarrassment. A few of the younger folk started taking photos with their phones and tablets, then texting. A cameraman from Channel Ten, who had been gathering background footage of glad family reunions, moved in for a better shot. A man in suit and tie exited the gate and walked right by Santa without a sideways glance, as if every airport he had passed through that day had its own Saxy Santa.

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Santa mellowed into “White Christmas” and the crowd felt loose enough now to mildly applaud, a few humming along. The counterperson from the doughnut shop just across the way set down a cup of water on a table nearby so Santa could keep his reed from going dry. “She knows I like it without ice,” he commented later to the cameraman. On Santa went for two more holiday favorites, and then a counter-reaction began.

It was still twenty minutes until the next scheduled arrival, but you could see eyes drifting back toward the screens. OMG, we had been subverted from our primary purpose, our mission neglected on our watch, and by what? By a Santa with a sax in a rental suit. How dare we allow ourselves to be distracted, even entertained! Away with this intrusion, this bit of seasonal fluff. A coldness began to blow through, as if someone had left open the airport door to the Arctic winds. Santa felt it too and turning around to face the elevator, his finger pressing the down button, with a solitary ding, they opened, closed and he was carried away.

So back we all went to our business. The flights arrived, with exchanged hugs and kisses and a few screams of glee; all duly recorded for the 10:00 news. I am confident that the holiday has been grand for each of our re-united families, but I am a bit saddened that for only brief moments do we allow ourselves to share the larger joys and the unexpected joys together.

A Step or Two Away From History

The passing of Mandela, like the death of many iconic figures, has brought back to mind memories not of just the person, but of an era that is also fading. A generation has grown up to adulthood since Apartheid collapsed and South Africa managed a transition of its society that few could have imagined as late as the 1980′s.  Archbishop emeritus Desmond Tutu summarized the challenge now facing his nation “to come together and to believe in ourselves and in each other” so as to refute anxious claims that the nation will go up in flames.

___ desmond tutu image source wcc 9th assembly de[1]As I listened to the Archbishop’s statement, I was brought back in my own memory to May 16-17, 1989 when I had opportunity to meet and talk with Desmond Tutu in person. He was on a visit to the USA as principal speaker at the American Forum on South Africa in New York City, which included a service at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine. Word came from Washington that President George H. W. Bush would be available for a meeting with the Bishop and others [Alan Bosak, Byers Naude] from South Africa on May 18th. My daughters were Cathedral Choristers, so I had the opportunity to greet the Archbishop “backstage” but the next day was more significant.

I had an office in the World Council of Churches suite at the Interchurch Center on Riverside Drive out of which we promoted Third-World economic development projects. We were somewhat accustomed to having church notables pass through along with political figures, but that morning there was a particular buzz. In the main office, sipping coffee and conversing was Ambassador Andrew Young, Rev. Bill Howard of the National Council of Churches, along with our WCC staffers, all of them awaiting Desmond Tutu. That was when I heard about the pending Presidential audience for which now precise plans had to be made. Up to that time, no US President had made any public endorsement of the Anti-Apatheid movement’s goals of justice and freedom for political prisoners. President Bush had to be persuaded to make such a public statement of support.

Desmond arrived, always the focal point of energy in any room he entered, yet almost always the shortest person in the room as well. Bill Howard turned to me and said, “Jim, we need to use your office for our meeting.” I immediately understood what he was saying and why. The large corner office with its comfortable seats and view of the Hudson was open and available. My office was narrow, sparsely enough appointed that everyone had to cart in their own chair. But the chances of my humble quarters being bugged were dramatically less. Even in that day, long before 9/11 and the NSA, this was a concern to be reckoned with. Happily I consented. Plans were finalized, Bush made his supportive statement and thus increased the diplomatic pressure on the South African government. Nine months afterwards, a gestation period’s time, Nelson Mandela walked out of prison.

Now these are just two events out of thousands that led up to the change. What transpired in my office and in the Oval Office the next morning is subject to interpretation, but my mind keeps drawing a connection between the two and then on to Nelson and Winny exiting the gates.  We are but a step or two away from history; witnessing to it if not making it. As the Archbishop has reminded us, history and change for the better come at us one day at a time giving us continuous opportunities to play our small part.

A Bronx Thanksgiving

Like a lot of folks, our family began our Thanksgiving dinner holding hands around the table and giving thanks, for the abundance of food before us, for family and friends near and far, for the life we live and freedoms we enjoy. Twenty-four hours later, I would have added to that list: “…and for the good people of The Bronx!”

WP_20131127_003You remember The Bronx. It’s the only boro of New York City that’s actually attached to the mainland. For most of us it’s that traverse between two bridges, the George Washington and the Throg’s Neck [or Whitestone or Triboro]. It’s the locale of the second-longest parking lot, the cynically named Cross Bronx Expressway [the Long Island Expressway being the acknowledged title holder]. It’s the name before the words “Zoo” or “Botanical Garden” or “Bombers”. It’s people are “somewhere else people”–from somewhere else and headed somewhere else–as was the case with the generations of my own Irish family. They followed the familiar trail from Manhattan’s Lower Eastside to Upper Westside to Fordham Road in the Bronx then on to Queens. Nowadays it’s third-generation Puerto Ricans making room for immigrating Turks.

The Bronx is also the locale of the VanWyck Expressway which traces the boro’s western and southern borders, a route that you only take to in order to go somewhere else, like from Upstate via the State Thruway to Long Island. As we were fetching my parents from New Jersey, a mere 18-mile round trip, we noticed on the outbound leg on the Cross-Bronx, a three-car accident that was sure to bring us to a grinding halt on the return leg. So after getting across the GWB in record time, stuffing two 90-year-olds into the car and going back over the Bridge, we decided to eschew the Cross-Bronx, which was indeed totally jammed, and take the Van Wyck. Now that was the correct move and a mere ten minutes later we pulled up in front of the apartment house, rather than inching along while the turkey got cold. But even when you win, you lose. As we pulled onto the Van Wyck, we hit a pothole the size of Kansas with a bone-jarring crash. Normally, one would pull over and inspect for damage, but the Van Wyck is not the place to stop with a car full of your loved ones. In fact, there is no place to pull over, so we kept going.

The meal was delicious, the wine flowed, the bird was done to perfection, the stuffing indescribable, the pies heavenly. We ate, we laughed, we talked. Then it was time to take folks home. One look at the front wheel of the car and I knew we were going nowhere–not only was it flat, but a large dent in the wheel rim told me there was no easy fix. We borrowed a car and delivered parents back home and I spent an uneasy night running scenarios on how to get a car repaired on Thanksgiving weekend. Black Friday it would be indeed.

My physics teacher in high-school had a motto: “Most problems are multi-stage problems–solve them a step at a time.” So at 5:00 AM, coffee in hand, that’s what I started to do. Flat tires are replaced by spares; in my case a “doughnut” under-sized spare tire just good enough to get you to the next service area. I went down to the street where the car was parked in a restricted school zone, thankfully on a holiday when there was no school session.  The spare was there and was inflated. Step One completed.

The temperature was in the teens and the flat was against the curb; to get the spare on might require a good jack. For times such as these, I carry around an AAA card. It may take a while, but they will come and either put on the spare or tow the car to a shop. The voice on the other end of the phone belonged to Holly, who wanted to be helpful. She listened to my tale of woe, took my information and location and assured me that someone would be there in 45 minutes and call my cell phone when he was near. “Stay inside and keep warm,” she advised. Step Two checked off.

The cell call came from Carlos, a twenty-something who looked at the tire and the rim dent and whistled low. “All this money they take in taxes and they can’t fill potholes that do this!” he said. “And you can’t sue the City!” Imagine, I thought, a young Republican in the Bronx. But Carlos was sharp when it came to flats and agreed with me that a dealership might be the best chance to replace that rim. My cell phone located one 1.4 miles east on Tremont. Step Three done.

Friday hours at the dealership started at 7:30 AM and we pulled up to the showroom at 7:50. The place looked deserted, no sales staff yet but the service manager sat at a desk sipping his coffee. “Love to help you,” he responded,”but this is a union shop and we are closed all the holiday weekend.” He lived forty miles north also and said that he had driven a doughnut once for maybe a hundred miles with no problem. The next dealership was twenty miles north but they might be closed as well. However, right down the block there was a gas station open and maybe they could help. Step Four was proving tough.

WP_20131201_001The station was open and was everything you would expect it to be. Two service bays, one with a car on the lift, old cars around the perimeter of the lot, the gas pump guy sipping his coffee, music from WXNY drifting out of the office space, and a mechanic talking on his cell, who came out and said, “bring me the wheel.” This was Ralph. Well maybe it was Ralph. I saw that the other guy had another blue shirt on that also said Ralph. Ralph and Carlos had the same reaction, “That must have been some pothole.” He lifted the wheel onto the tire changer, drained the remaining air, removed the valve and dismounted the tire to inspect it. No obvious damage. “You’re lucky. Maybe we can do something.” Putting the rim on the ground, he picked up a ten-pound sledge and gave the dent four or five well-aimed whacks, then another three for good measure. “Don’t tell anybody,” he quipped, “I give a ten-year warranty.” The dent had disappeared. The tire was remounted, reinflated and soap solution poured over it to test for leaks–none hissed back at us. For safety sake, he wanted to mount the wheel on the rear, where he discovered another bent rim, slighter than the first, that took only a couple of sledge blows. “That will be fifteen bucks” he waved. Step Four behind us.

The fifth and final step was to pack up and trek the 150 miles back home, hoping it all held together; which it did. So here’s to the good people of the Bronx, who know how to deal with complex problems–one step at a time.

 

Where We Were and Where We Are

The question of the day on the media seems to be “Where were you on November 22, 1963 when you heard the news of President Kennedy’s death?” One by one, the radio testimonies flow from persons who were there, news reporters near the scene, local personalities recalling that day in their childhood. You can sense the depth of the trauma of that moment for all manner of folk. Most can recall in detail their thoughts and actions as they were told about or heard of this tear in the nation’s fabric.

JFK motorcade

I was in the basement stacks of my college’s library where I had a job “reading the shelves”, that is, making sure the books were in order of their Dewey Decimal system numbers.  Short of being sealed up in an Antarctic cave, I can think of no place more isolated from the goings-on of the world. The lights started to be shut off, the usual signal that the library was closing, but it was early afternoon, far from closing time. I emerged from the stacks up into the main lobby, which was empty except for the head Librarian. I asked what was going on, why the closing down. Surprised at my being there and my question, the librarian blurted out: “The President has been shot in Dallas and he is dead,” then broke down in tears. Librarians are not known for their emotional displays and while his words conveyed the facts,  it was his cracking voice and anguished face that carried the concussive force. As with many who recollected today, the words were not absorbable at the moment, we had no frame of reference to make sense of what we heard and had to believe.  We did not have to say it, but the world we had assumed to be moving in one direction had abruptly shifted course, toward a darker destination.

The next day was Saturday and everything had come to a halt. We had been sitting in front of TV screens in the Commons, dorms and faculty homes, watching the now-iconic images of Johnson’s swearing-in, the pink dressed widow, the grey Navy hearse at the White House, the preparations for lying in state in the rotunda. Yet seeing was not necessarily believing. To move beyond shock, we need gathering and ceremony. Sunday in the college Chapel, filled beyond its capacity, we began that movement toward new realities. Arthur Jentz, a minor figure in the Biblical Studies department, preached on Isaiah 6: “In the year King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up.” He pointed out how Uzziah’s death was a calamity for Israel and how it is in those times, when the accustomed social fabric falls away, we can start to comprehend what endures and what lies ahead to be endured. The message given Isaiah that day was not a pleasant one, national travail was to continue, but in the end, there was ultimate hope. Fifty years along, those words still resonate.

JFK relatives Arlington 50thIn the next five years there were two more assassinations, the civil rights and anti-War movements rearranged society, Woodstock was around the corner. Indeed, it could be plausibly argued that we are a nation that hasn’t quite found its balance yet. If I had to select a moment when we took a hit that knocked us off course, I’d chose November 22, 1963.

Sizing the Attic

The phone connection was sketchy at best, lots of static, pieces of words coming through leaving us both to fill in the blanks. “What do you mean,” he said, “you are ‘sizing the attic’? I thought you were done with renovating for now?” My mind scrambled about, looking for the lost thread of conversation. I hadn’t said anything about any renovating, much less the attic, which is just about the only area we haven’t touched with a hammer recently. That was when my Times crossword training kicked in, sounding out what he thought he had heard. “No, I was talking about my back, not the attic,’ I replied. “I said I had sciatica.”

Sciatica exercises _ fyht_comWhich was all too true–I was in agony. I had overdone it last Thursday out at the log pile, chain sawing logs to rounds, hauling them to the stack, hand-splitting them into quarters and carting them off to the woodshed where they were cross-stacked again. By lunch break, I could feel the twinge of irritation down by my right hip, but the day was clear and pleasant and I needed another half-cord in the shed to feel confident of making it through the heating season. It was last-ditch effort time, so back out I went. That was the last time for several days that I stood up straight. By 3:00, I knew I had crossed a line.

Sciatica is a condition of drivers and the driven; in this instance, the latter. The body in its wisdom gives out warnings to the brain and its drive toward closure of task. The brain puts on blinders or rose-colored glasses, and increases pressure for productivity: cut, haul, split, stack, higher and higher. Then comes that moment when the splitting maul cannot be lifted above the shoulder in that same graceful arc that was so easily achieved in the morning. The body prevails. The body ails.

Piriformis Syndrome – Sciatica _ Singapore PhysioIf you ever want to know in advance what it is like to be 99 years old, I would suggest you irritate your sciatic nerve. Tightening up your piriformis muscle, which attaches your femur to your hip, deep beneath your butt beyond your reach, is a most effective method of irritation. It results in a pain which travels from your lower back down through your leg toward your toes. At its onset, there is no comfortable position, standing, sitting or lying prone that relieves the pain completely or allows you to relax the other muscles of your back or leg. Hence other vital functions like walking, sitting, sleeping, even sneezing can trigger bursts of agony you thought were reserved only for the damned. Evidently, the damned have no monopoly; the stupid can also partake.

In the old days of working, I achieved sciatic agony by doing extended driving on New Jersey roads. Retirement closed that avenue off until I discovered the wood pile. Now I can be stupid all on my own and ignore what an aging body is trying to tell me. It’s a head and hip dialogue. The head says, “Get it done like always, wimp!” and the hip responds, “Easy there fella.”

What kind of yoga poses for sciatica are recommenIt is, of course, all avoidable; and somewhat curable afterward. If I had begun Thursday’s activities with some yoga poses, before picking up the chainsaw, the piriformis muscles would have been warmed and loosened up. Ten minutes of “one-legged pigeon” and “eye-of-the-needle” would have given me a pain-free Friday and Saturday return on investment. As it turned out, I assumed these and other poses throughout the weekend, alternated warm rice bags and ice packs, drank water and got rest so that by today I feel physically better. But I also experience a residue of shame over my being so obstinate, so subject to being driven even when it is inappropriate and importune. I am retired but not so retiring; and that at times has a cost.