Archive for the ‘Observations’ Category

It began as a regular enough cab ride.

I needed to get from point A to point B and no one was available to drive me. Well perhaps a slight irregularity in the music selection I’d chosen for my overall commute, the Magnificat. Personally, I’m not particularly religious, but I have a strong attraction to sacred music – evidenced here and there about this blog. I don’t really have “getting pumped for the start of the day” music, I’ve got “overdeveloped sense of entitlement” music that can serve a similar purpose.

Were I head of state, I’d have the opening of the Magnificat played when I entered a room. Sort of like Hail to the chief, but even grander. Who needs an armed forces band when one can get an orchestra, horn flourishes, and a chorus. Maybe I’m an emperor without an empire, or a prince without a principality, but I can still play the Magnificat while walking around the streets of New York City. As I said, overdeveloped sense of entitlement – or taking the Calvin and Hobbes life with a soundtrack comic strip a bit far.

So anyway, I’d decided to repeat a particularly well crafted piece, its entirety,:

Suscepit Israel puerum suum recordatus misericordiae suae.

He has taken under his protection Israel his boy, and remembered his mercy.

The soprano-alto combination is just generally brilliant, and just because I can, I’ll throw in the general moving-ness of Et misericordia also from the Magnificat and So ist mein Jesus nun gefangen from the St. Matthew Passion. (Given what follows, Bach as a bookend is utterly necessary.)

I happened to be taking this cab ride with two other people, strangers who were also going to be dropped off. Myself and another gentleman sat in the back seat, and one passenger sat in the front seat next to the driver.

Upon entering the cab, the passenger in the front seat began to complain. Loudly. I didn’t see what had happened, and the way his complaints were going, I guessed he had sat in something unpleasant. Was it just a wet spot left by an ill placed umbrella? My commute had begun with a pretty uproarious thunderstorm, so that was a possibility. Was it some unpleasant liquid that would leave a stain? Fourth of July weekend, maybe some passenger had partied a little too hard earlier in the evening. But I didn’t smell anything untoward.

The cause of complaint became apparent, sitting in the cab just outside the dispatch office. While entering, part of an article of clothing snagged on something on the cab door and had ripped. There’s a hole in my $200, name-brand designer article of clothing. Cursing and fussing directed at the dispatcher, whose window overlooks where cabs pick passengers up. Then cursing and fussing directed at the cab driver. I’m not sure who he wanted $200 from, but there the definite implication of being owed $200 for a mishap that was, to his mind, clearly the fault of the cab company, dispatcher, and cab driver. What if a child had been with him? What if the cause of the torn shirt caused bleeding? plato-the-republicThere were not questions posed as in a Socratic dialogue, “Yes, that is very true, but may I ask another question? What do you consider to be…”.

The situation calmed down somewhat, but not entirely and certainly not a good start to the journey. During the course of the cab ride, Angry Passenger’s near-fury at the tearing of the shirt did not subside. Angry Passenger proceeded to make cell phone calls where he shared his displeasure in vivid terms. I would beat up the cab driver, but jail. And also, the “If I had my gun I would…”.

I was going to write veiled threats of violence, but it is hard to describe a profanity laced expression of anger in that way, via cell phone conversations with third parties, as veiled. This was not a pleasant cab journey for me and I wasn’t even the target. And unfortunately passenger to my left was getting dropped off first. So me, not so veiled threat of violence guy, and cab driver for part of the journey. Not exactly how one wants to conclude a commute. We did happen to pick up two additional passengers, a pair of friends, on the way to veiled threat of violence guy’s destination. I got bumped to fourth in line to be dropped off, but was happy to have company.

Threats-guy was dropped off and insisted on not paying, and the cab driver let it go. I thought a wise decision. I still don’t know if the whole show of anger was just a method of getting out of paying for the ($4 without tip) cab journey, or if this was genuinely the threats-guy’s way of proceeding in the world: get angry, express threats, including the threat of beating up people who displease and/or threatening to use firearms.

And maybe I’m taking what was really customer dissatisfaction mixed with hyperbole too seriously, but I’ve underestimated the prospect of two strangers engaged in a dispute breaking out into outright violence right before my very eyes before. With oddly similar thoughts during the buildup to actual violence in that instance: Is this really happening? That person didn’t really just threaten violence did he? Maybe I misheard him – or maybe I misunderstood something innocuous for a threat of violence? Or mistook that statement for this situation headed in a direction it clearly wouldn’t go in? And then sure enough, I was distressingly near a fight on an LIRR train. What’s more, $200 shirts weren’t involved in that instance. (I’ve had stretches of time in bubbles where I’d forgotten that people used certain, fairly untowards methods of expression full stop.)

I want to tie this tale up with a bow. And maybe it is something as simple as, angry guy was a jerk and direct, customer-facing jobs can be incredibly difficult in ways that office-all-day people don’t appreciate enough. But I’ll use as a bookend something, perhaps, more hopeful. From a genius of music to one of the written word, the story of Maya Angelou’s encounter with a famous recording artist (hat tip to the friend who shared another program featuring Maya Angelou where I first heard this story; this quote via Business Insider).

“I didn’t know who he was. He was into a big row with another young man so I said to him, ‘May I speak to you?’ and he was cursing, whoo. And I said, ‘When was the last time anyone told you how important you are?’ Did you know people stood on auction blocks and were bought and sold so that you could stay alive today?’

And finally he heard me and stopped talking and started to weep. I put my arms around him and walked him back into the arena and he quieted. I went back to my trailer and Janet Jackson came running in and said, ‘Dr. Angelou, I don’t believe you actually spoke to Tupac Shakur!’ And I said, ‘Darling, I don’t know him from 6-pack.’ I had never heard of him.”


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St. Matthew Passion closing sections.

Ruht wohl, ihr heiligen Gebeine,
Die ich nun weiter nicht beweine,
Ruht wohl und bringt auch mich zur Ruh!
Das Grab, so euch bestimmet ist
Und ferner keine Not umschließt,
Macht mir den Himmel auf und schließt die Hölle zu.

Rest in peace, you sacred limbs,
I shall weep for you no more,
rest in peace, and bring me also to rest.
The grave that is allotted to you
and contains no further suffering,
opens heaven for me and shuts off hell.

Ach Herr, lass dein lieb Engelein
Am letzten End die Seele mein
In Abrahams Schoß tragen,
Den Leib in seim Schlafkämmerlein
Gar sanft ohn eigne Qual und Pein
Ruhn bis am jüngsten Tage!
Alsdenn vom Tod erwecke mich,
Dass meine Augen sehen dich
In aller Freud, o Gottes Sohn,
Mein Heiland und Genadenthron!
Herr Jesu Christ, erhöre mich,
Ich will dich preisen ewiglich!

Ah Lord, let your dear angels
at my final hour carry my soul
to Abraham’s bosom,
while my body in its narrow chamber
gently without pain or torment
rests until the last day.
Wake me then from death,
so that my eyes see you
in all joy,o God’s son,
my saviour and throne of mercy
Lord Jesus Christ, hear me,
I shall praise you eternally!

Almost too hopeful a selection for reflection on the murder of more than two dozen people. Most of them in an elementary school. Most of them children.


America has yet another awful opportunity to sit with the idea that America is a violent country. Another opportunity to pose the question: What kind of country do we want to live in?

We should have that discussion, and initially at least, we should admit all answers. So those who want armed primary and secondary school teachers, concealed carry on college campuses, more guns not fewer, those are valid answers to bring to this wide-open discussion. Frankly, I disagree rather strongly with those replies, but they need to be represented in the discussion. If only so that we can also make representations about a much narrower understanding of the Second Amendment on the opposite side.

Unfortunately, I don’t see the process for working through these replies housed with Congress in the first instance. Congress has the fiscal cliff, impending cabinet nominations, and any number of well entrenched battles and animosities to work its way through at any given moment. Perhaps its my time observing at UK politics, where public inquiries and national commissions have been an even more regular part of working through national events. Some collection outside of Congress, but with greater heft than civil society’s Punch and Judy Show, to digest the entire issue. Take the whole thing, “On Violence in America”, into its orbit.

Crucially, with public hearings. Let’s hear from the NRA and the National Shooting Sports Foundation as well as from the victims of gun violence. Let’s hear from sociologists, criminologists, psychologists, anyone willing to bring their expertise, personal or professional, to bear on the issue. We need South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission level consideration. A wide mandate, a broad remit, and a deadline for producing a report.

Put the national dialogue into an institution with a responsibility to take something forward.

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Le Corbu's Plan Voisin

How CNN Newsroom anchor Kyra Phillips described Zuccotti Park in a setup to a discussion with CNN senior medical correspondent Elizabeth Cohen.* Phillips and Cohen went on to discuss the public health risks presented by having so many people live in such a confined space, with Cohen pointing out the health dangers were primarily to occupiers, not the general public. That description, “mountains of trash and filth” caught my attention because I visitied Zuccotti Park on Friday with two friends for a few hours, my first visit and not theirs.

We walked around. We discussed the merits of the protest and the direction of the movement. Then we tried to visit the 9/11 Memorial but didn’t have the requisite reservation, so we returned to Zuccotti Park. So we sat on the steps and discussed the merits of Occupy some more. We watched part of a general meeting and then went to dinner. Now during the few hours that I spent there, I think I would have noticed these mountains of trash and filth. Yes it was cramped. The layout of the park wouldn’t have fit Le Corbusier’s visions of orderliness. But I detected no mountains of trash and filth. Cohen goes on to remark on the “not great sanitation, garbage, feces”.**

Now, I haven’t been to the other Occupy protests, I can only speak to firsthand experience with Occupy Wall Street from visiting Zuccotti Park Friday evening. But from what I witnessed Friday, they were pretty orderly with regard to waste disposal. I wasn’t looking out for it, or thinking about potential Occupy Wall Street public health dangers but I saw specific bins marked off for composting, with a sign above in one half red one half green. The red half identified the things that were not ok to put with compost and the green half of the sign identified things that were ok. Run of the mill left-ish conservation-y concerns that didn’t stand out in my mind at the time. There was a kitchen. There was a library. Hardly Victorian cholera afflicted London. Someone had put some thought into this occupation, given Occupy’s direct democratic governance mechanisms, quite a few people had given the occupation thought.

So from what I saw for myself, the compost sign for instance, from what I smelled – I would have noticed trash and feces strewn about – and from what I can infer from OWS having a library and working kitchen I have to call this CNN report out. Execrable reporting CNN, I hope they will try to do better in the future.

About 10:03am on CNN today

* – Kyra Phillips: You know, one of the many reasons for clearing the park is health concerns, not just for those who lived among these mountains of trash and filth, but also the people who live nearby.

** Elizabeth Cohen: Serious health risks for the people who are in these Occupy movements. We’ve been speaking with these infectious disease experts and they say with winter coming, it’s a perfect storm because with winter comes flu and other viral illnesses and you have that many people packed together in a small area. And that is just a recipe for illness. And in addition you have not great sanitation, garbage, feces, it is just not a great situation. So the experts we talked to were concerned that if something wasn’t done you definitely could have people getting sick.

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Ten years and a day

St. John Passion, Zerfließe, mein Herze

Zerfließe, mein Herze,
in Fluten der Zähren
dem Höchsten zu Ehren!
Erzähle der Welt und dem Himmel die Not:
Dein Jesus ist tot!

Dissolve then, my heart,
in floods of tears
as your tribute to our God.
Tell earth and heaven the sad news,
your Jesus is dead!

On September 11, 2001 I was in the midst of beginning my sophomore year of college about seven miles north of the World Trade Center. I was up early getting ready for my class on Colonial Latin America. Listening to NPR.

I remember hearing the news on the radio that a plane had crashed into the World Trade Center and thinking, “Well that must be an accident, a plane had accidentally crashed into the Empire State Building before.” I didn’t know the details of the Empire State Building crash but these things accidentally happen. Not exactly New York nonchalance, but this was not rupture. Still listening to WNYC in my dorm room, typical of early reporting after an accident there were confused reports. I remember the journalist trying to find out from people with sight of the World Trade Center how big the plane was. Was it a Cessna or was it a jetliner?

Only later when a second plane flew into the World Trade Center did the thoughts of accidents evaporate. This was intentional. This was rupture. Odd thinking back on it, but I still went to class that morning. Leaving my suitemates and CNN in the lounge behind, and the World Trade Center still standing, billowing smoke but still standing, I took the short walk across campus to learn about Colonial Latin America.

Class over, I remember hearing about the collapse of one of the towers on my way back to my dorm. Hearing and disbelieving. Skyscrapers are permanent, or semi-permanent. They’re not just here one moment and gone the next. The remaining events of 9/11 ran their brutal, heartrending course.

The sound of fire trucks headed downtown in the morning. The closing of the subway lines, and bridges and tunnels. Being on Manhattan and not able to leave. Not that I was going to go anywhere, but liberty to move from where you are is such a delicate thing. When it’s taken away, you know it. The airspace of the United States being closed. The fear. The relief of seeing a jet fighter in the skies above Manhattan.

So many events, rushing past, all at once. In a single day. Certainly not time on the day to process anything. To make any sense of this Pearl Harbor in my lifetime. Pearl Harbor before my eyes. Not staid, safe Pearl Harbor in history books or memorials, Pearl Harbor of black and white photos, “A day that will live in infamy”, but infamy of decades ago and poor audio quality. Not only was this color, not only was this live and on Manhattan, this was multiple camera angles, the view from buildings in Midtown, the view from across New York Harbor. Eventually, the aftermath of 9/11 as seen from the International Space Station. This was watching people die in replay, after replay, after replay.

All those dead people in lower Manhattan. On the day of, who could know how many. Tens of thousands worked there. I remember a tour guide had said the towers had their own zip code. However many people a zip code is, that many. That many dead or buried alive.

9/11 was shock. 9/12 was pain. Not the pain of anyone I know being dead or missing. An uncle in the NYPD, unharmed. A college friend’s parent who worked in the World Trade Center, safe.

Grief and pain all the same.

"Visible from space, a smoke plume rises from the Manhattan area after two planes crashed into the towers of the World Trade Center. This photo was taken of metropolitan New York City (and other parts of New York as well as New Jersey) the morning of September 11, 2001. 'Our prayers and thoughts go out to all the people there, and everywhere else,' said Station Commander Frank Culbertson of Expedition 3, after the terrorists’ attacks." (NASA)

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St. Matthew Passion, Wir setzen uns

Wir setzen uns mit Tränen nieder
und rufen dir im Grabe zu:
Ruhe sanfte, sanfte ruh’!
Ruht, ihr ausgesognen Glieder!
Ruhet sanfte, ruhet wohl!
Euer Grab und Leichenstein
soll dem ängstlichen Gewissen
ein bequemes Ruhekissen
und der Seelen Ruhstatt sein.
Höchst vernügt,
schlummern da die Augen ein.
We sit down in tears
and call to you in the grave:
Rest softly, softly rest!
Rest, you weary limbs!
Rest softly, rest well!
Your grave and tombstone shall be
to the troubled conscience
a comfortable pillow,
and for the soul a resting place.
In highest contentment,
there my eyes close in slumber.

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This month I moved from London back home to New York. A little while ago a friend told me there are three stages to living abroad: euphoria, melancholy, and new equilibrium. (I prefer her description to the honeymoon, negotiation, adjustment, mastery phases outlined in Wikipedia’s culture shock entry.)

First, euphoria. The novelty of new surroundings intoxicates. How does to describe euphoria? Well, I couldn’t stop smiling. Elation at encounters with anything and everything. Nothing could go wrong, I was in London! The day-to-day life of being abroad was imbued with positive qualities for the simple fact that it was not home, not regular, not normal, not the same old things the same old way; both the US and UK imagine their cultures are more similar than they actually are. In euphoria, nothing is an inconvenience or an annoyance. There’s just so much new stuff around to see and do. New museums, new parks, new sights to see. And as I was studying abroad, a new university, new libraries, and of course new friends. For me, the bureaucratic tasks of setting up life in a new place were swept up in the newness of it all. And luckily for me, nothing did go wrong for some time.

Melencolia I
Albrecht Dürer, 1514

The second stage of living abroad: melancholy. Homesickness strikes. Faultfinding is entangled with missing family and friends. All the novelty becomes empty. “They don’t do it this way back home,” becomes the disapproving refrain. The sheen attaching itself to everything loses its glittering appeal. On Thanksgiving it was strange to see the British press reporting on the holiday in America. Everyone just carries on as though it was any other workday, lectures and commuting. Talking to family at Thanksgiving dinner back home in the wee hours of the morning also brought home the apartness created by being abroad. The Atlantic Ocean can be a pond for some people on occasion, but in this stage it is keenly felt as an ocean. Phone calls, emails, and pictures do not replace the sights, sounds, and smells of home.

The third and final stage of living abroad is new equilibrium, accepting the pros and cons of home home and new home.

Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.
— Mark Twain, Innocents Abroad

Hopefully, travel educates the traveler. “They don’t do it this way back home,” becomes a more rigorous scrutiny of the whys and wherefores of both home and abroad. One gets a better eye for what is taken for granted where and why.

All of which to say, living in London was magnificent and living in New York again is also magnificent. Though New York will always be just that little bit more special for being home home.

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Pause for reflection

Rosary Bead, early 16th century (Met Museum, the Cloisters)

But politics!
But gun control!
But Sarah Palin!
But mud slinging!


A nine year old child.

Murder and maiming.
Other innocents.

Just, pause.

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