Archive for April, 2011

Letter From New York, April 26, 2011

April 26, 2011

Or, as it seems to me…

It is the end of the long Easter weekend and, as I often do at the end of Easter, I find myself thoughtful. I was raised Catholic and am infused with that tradition. I will always be infused with that. As my friend Robert said to me last year about this time: once a Catholic, always a Catholic. And I will always, on some level, be Catholic, an inescapable state.

I do not practice Roman Catholicism though I sometimes attend Catholic services, not often though. I sometimes attend Episcopal services. I have done so since I was in college.

And it was while I was in college that Easter became something more than it had been in my Catholic childhood. It became a time of reflection, of personal stocktaking, of understanding that there is a place in history that this weekend represents which is important in the course of human events. Regardless of your belief structure, it is impossible to deny that the life and death of Jesus changed the world forever.

My most important Good Friday happened when I was in college. My roommate Ron and I were driving back from Toronto where we went frequently; he was marrying a girl from there. As we drove back from Toronto on that Good Friday, driving as we were day and night, we read THE LION, THE WITCH AND THE WARDROBE by C.S. Lewis to each other. As Aslan was resurrected, the sun burst through the dismal skies of that day and the sun made a glorious appearance through the hills of Wisconsin.

I cried that day at the power of the story. And ever since that day I have paid deep attention to Good Friday, every Good Friday since then has captured my attention, my notice, my contemplation. This past Good Friday was grey, rainy, cold and full of intimations of mortality – as a Good Friday should be or so I think now.

When three o’clock came, the time Jesus died on the cross, a death so horrible I cannot even imagine, I was listening to Mozart’s Requiem in D Minor and thinking on that powerful day in college when I viscerally understood the story of death and resurrection. As I regularly do on Easter weekend, I read the story of Jesus’ death, his resurrection. The Gospel of Matthew, of course.

On Holy Saturday, the rains continued, a soft, sad nature song that fitted the Easter story, fitted the story that Jesus was in his grave. I thought about the silence of the grave, which awaits us all and that is part of what I think about on Easter weekend, mortality. And the brief mortality of the man who was named Jesus and called the Christ.

Easter itself was a special day. The sun played with the clouds, mists rose from the creek, there was time with friends, lamb was eaten, people were met and I thought about resurrection. There is a Christian Evangelical Minister named Ron Bell who is attracting attention and some derision as he is thinking of a universe without hell. He was written up in Time last week, or the week before last.

I think, at the end of the day, God is the spirit of Easter, the spirit of resurrection and hope, of forgiveness. Did not Christ say on the cross, as he died his agonizing death, “Forgive them Father for they know not what they do?”

And that is the spirit of Easter. If we do not live in the spirit of Easter and if there is no spirit of redemption there is no hope for us. It does not matter what religion you practice; there is universal truth in Easter, in forgiveness, in resurrection. It is the essence of what I struggle with – I need to believe in the spirit of redemption because only in redemption will we find salvation. And salvation, even if only from ourselves, is what we seek while we plod our way across this mortal coil.

A Letter From New York, April 19, 2011

April 19, 2011

As it seems to me

Last Thursday night was April 14th.

I took the time to mark that April 14th/April 15th, 2011 was the 99th anniversary of the sinking of R.M.S. Titanic, the “Ship of Dreams” which, went it went down on its maiden voyage, spawned stories, legends, lore, parables, allegories and quite a number of movies, the first a silent film starring one of the survivors, Dorothy Gibson, who was a screen star returning on Titanic from a vacation in Italy. It was called SAVED FROM THE TITANIC and was a huge hit; presaging many other films about Titanic including A NIGHT TO REMEMBER, TITANIC [with Barbara Stanwyck and Clifton Webb] and TITANIC [with Kate Winslet and Leonardo diCaprio], which was the highest grossing film of all time for a decade. There has been a Broadway musical, documentaries and another television mini-series on its way.

We have coined the phrase “rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic,” referring to a hopeless reorganization of anything.

It is a story that has romance to it – the rich and famous, sailing with light hearts toward New York, aboard the most glamorous ship of the day, unaware or unworried that the ship sailed with lifeboats for only a fraction of the passengers aboard.

Then came the iceberg, the swift sinking of the ship and the stories. It was a sobering message to an age that thought technology could solve anything, that nothing was impossible. Titanic was never advertised as unsinkable but it gained that reputation. It rapidly demonstrated it wasn’t.

The event provided examples of great courage. I walk regularly by Straus Park on Broadway, dedicated to Isidore and Ida Straus. He owned Macy’s; she was twice offered a place in a lifeboat but would not leave her husband of 41 years. 6000 people attended their memorial service. The eight men who had been hired to play music on board have recently been immortalized in a book, THE BAND THAT PLAYED ON. They played until almost the very end. It was said their last piece was NEARER MY GOD TO THEE.

The disaster gave us “The Unsinkable Molly Brown,” a wealthy, colorful Coloradan who took command of her lifeboat when she found the crew wanting.

Below decks, men worked to give the ship as much time as possible, perhaps extending the ship’s life by two hours, giving time for all the lifeboats to get away, and keeping the lights on until the very end, suspecting they were doomed, not unlike the “Nuclear Samurai” working in the Fukushima Nuclear Power Facility, laboring on to prevent a larger disaster, while knowing they are likely dooming themselves in the process.

Aboard Titanic was John Jacob Astor, the richest man in the world. All his wealth couldn’t save him; his body was recovered, appearing that one of the ship’s four smoke stakes had fallen on him. Mrs. Astor gave birth to a son, John Jacob V, who went on to marry a woman named Brooke, who gave away millions and millions to New York and whose son now faces jail time for having swindled his mother.

Legend has it that Titanic was the first ship to send out the distress call, SOS. One radio operator survived, the other did not.

The event presaged the end of an age. It shook the world to its core. That glittering world in which the rich were the celebrities of the time, where titles mattered dearly, and technology could overcome ended absolutely when the First World War tore it all apart.

It was a sobering moment. The Coast Guard began monitoring icebergs; ships were never again allowed to sail without sufficient lifeboats, rules changed. J. Bruce Ismay, head of Titanic’s owner, White Star Line, survived the night though his reputation did not and he lived his life out in scorned exile.

There are no longer living survivors of the night, the last, a baby then, passed away in 2009. Yet the sinking of Titanic lives on, a real event that became legend, large in life, larger in legend – a powerful allegory of pride that goes before the fall.

April 11, 2011

Letter From New York
April 11, 2011
Or, as it seems to me…

There hasn’t been a missive in a couple of weeks; it’s not for lack of effort – there have been several drafts.

But I was never happy with what I have seen on the page. Coming back from SXSW, I felt the hope that was in the crowd at the Interactive portion – people could use technology to make the world better.

However, when I returned I was overwhelmed by events in the world. Libya. A third war for the U.S. Ongoing troubles across the Arab world, the price of oil soaring, budgetary crises in Washington, nuclear meltdown in Japan, a flurry of publicity and chitter chatter about the iPad 2.

I ask myself all the time: what is really important? The arrival of the iPad 2? Yes, it’s important. Apple and its devices are BIG news. But so is what is happening in Kabul and Baghdad. And all of that is pretty incredible and we have become, I’m afraid, immune to it – we have lived with this for too many years. We are at war in a lot of places: Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and, as someone noted to me today, how about Mexico, which is on the edge of exploding? That’s the way it is in the world today.

I can’t ignore it. And I can’t do much about it. I write regular letters to my Representatives and hope they hear what I am saying. There is a huge dialogue in the country about bringing down the deficit but it seems focused on Amtrak and NPR and PBS and all kinds of social service programs that really represent a fraction of the budget while no one talks about the cost of the wars we are engaged in or how do we make Social Security really viable for the next 100 years. We’re not having the conversations we really need to have.

I’m angry with everyone right now. I think the Republicans are demagogues and the Democrats aren’t offering real alternatives. And I don’t like waking up in the morning to NPR because the news seems all bad but I don’t change the channel because I feel I need to know what is really going on. And while I am depending on NPR to give the ugly news of what is going on I am also faced with a Congress that wants to defund NPR so that I won’t wake up in the morning knowing how bad things are. Because then we can live in the America that they think we’re living in which is not the America we’re living in.

We are, as a country, way down on the lists of good things. We’re not at the top of lists of almost anything. And that really worries me. It doesn’t seem to worry many people how far down the list we are in terms of medical care. Doesn’t it worry anyone else that Costa Rica is better than we are in medical care overall? It does me. Now granted, that’s overall and not necessarily a specific situation. In a specific trauma situation we may well be the best but we’re not overall.

We’re 17th in math and science these days. And should I really worry about this? Yes, because this is my home. Once in the long ago and far away, I thought about emigrating to Canada or Australia but didn’t because America is my home, my homeland.

The United States is so many different things to so many different people, all inhabiting the boundaries, physically and psychologically of this unique, strange, wonderful, magnificent, convoluted thing called “America.” It is the dichotomies, rabid politics of some, the yearnings and tensions, the palpable ache for something better that makes this country what it is and today it is am much a riot as it ever has been if not more so.

My angst doesn’t change that the sun is shining in while I am working on this, with a nice Italian white wine while waiting for an old friend, which is also much of what life is about, so we can sit at lunch and talk about all of these strange things.