Alternative New York Holiday Traditions

The holidays, as we collectively call them, start in earnest while we are still recovering from Halloween and preparing for Thanksgiving. Once Thanksgiving is over, all bets are off and we are surrounded by the Christmas season until we crawl back to work on January 2nd to the grim realities of our winter lives.

Holiday traditions are fine things, and for many years I took pride in my annual Bad Santa Party, which celebrated the greatest Christmas movie ever made, Bad Santa. Someday I will revive that tradition with a vengeance, but until that time it pays to find other holiday traditions that will celebrate the season without going to church or being part of a slack-jawed mob.

Of course, there are plenty of things to do that are not holiday related, but if you want to enjoy some yuletide spirit but not be surrounded by entitled ignoramuses or enormous crowds, here are some ways to observe the holiday season without losing your sanity or your edge.

Tree lightings abound. Mobs crowd Rockefeller Center and their tree is the most well-known in the city, but lots of other trees and menorahs have ceremonial lightings. Different parks, zoos and public gardens hold a host of lighting events and they are often a lot of fun. Go to one of those and you’ll get just as much craic as you would from going to some massive retail tree lighting and have a better time with smaller crowds as well.

Santa Claus for a better cause. You could certainly wait on a long line at a department store or shopping mall to put your sloppy toddler on that stranger’s lap, or you could explore an alternative venue where there won’t be as many elves or predatory photographers but the money will be going to a good cause. In my area, both the Queens Botanical Garden and the Lewis Latimer House have events where kids get to meet Santa Claus.

Anti SantaCon Pub Crawl. One of the more obnoxious holiday traditions in the city is SantaCon, a prolonged drunken stumble by perpetually unaware hollow men and their fawning female enablers. Sadly, SantaCon was once a fun and inspiring artistic event that became too popular and is now the corrupt antithesis of its founding ideals. But where there is a need for change, New Yorkers will step into the breech, and so bar owners in Brooklyn have started the Anti-SantaCon Gowanus Pub Crawl on Sunday, Dec. 9. You still get to dress up and drink in the holiday spirit, but absent the feeble stupidity that passes for holiday spirit among the current SantaCon crowd.

Literary birthday celebrations. Did you know that December 3 is Joseph Conrad’s birthday? Or that December 7 is the anniversary of Willa Cather’s birth? Shirley Jackson, Stanley Crouch, Edna O’Brien, Jane Austen, George Santayana, John Milton, and Mary Higgins Clark, among other literary lights, have birthdays in December. Why not have a party where you read their works?

Visit the New York Hall of Science. I have a tradition of visiting the New York Hall of Science on Christmas Eve with my daughters. It’s usually not crowded and our girls love science. It gives their mother a break from watching them for a while and she has time to wrap their gifts while they are away. It allows us to enjoy this popular public space in a bit of solitude and quiet.

There is no more New York thing to do than to carve out your own new tradition and celebration. The holidays give us these opportunities. Seize the day.

 

Back in the deer woods

My plans to take time off from work were squelched by too many year-end goings on at work. So I drove up to Connecticut last Friday night to get one full day of hunting in this past Saturday.

It was the Friday after Thanksgiving and the highways were regularly quiet. I-95 in Connecticut is normally a slow-lurching snake of chrome and misery, so to breeze north was a rare treat. I made good time in getting to my friend Steve’s house. Steve is an accomplished hunter and he is generous enough to let me stay at his house when I go hunting.

I was up before 5:30 a.m. the next day. Hunting or running the Tunnel to Towers 5k are the only reasons a anyone should be willingly awake before 6 a.m. on a weekend. I was ready and out the door without too much problem. Unfortunately I accidentally set off my car’s car alarm in the driveway of my friend’s house, waking him and at least one member of his family.

I was the only one pulling into the small area for cars at the unmarked entrance to the Cockaponset State Forest on Little City Road in Killingworth, Connecticut. I didn’t see any other human beings for the next 10 hours and that was a good thing. I saw and heard evidence of people, but all the time outside in the daylight it was just me and my quest to take a deer home.

Spending time in and around the natural world is a basic human need. The science is in, and there are significant health benefits to spending time around more trees and fewer people. Human beings are not meant to live without experiencing some part of the natural world on a regular basis.

I made my way into the woods. It was still dark, but a bright moon provided good light. Once it was past the legal hunting time I loaded up and kept making my way quietly to my chosen hunting spot.

I got very lucky the first time I staked out this area and it and it has the natural attributes that would make it a good location to begin with. It is a natural overlook with greenery for deer to eat and water for them to drink.

But nothing doing. While I heard gunshots going off in the distance frequently and thought maybe some deer would get chased my way, nothing doing. At midday, I decided to search out someplace different. I started by making my way to my old spot, at another overlook that is an even higher perch. It was there where I took my first deer several years ago.

The area has improved, in that the stream that was dried up a few years ago is back and flowing nicely. But it has attracted other, less ethical hunters. Someone left a camping chair and their garbage on this natural overlook, a major faux pas in the hunting world. I thought it would be justified to take this chair out of the woods, as punishment to whatever entitled rube left it there along with their refuse. Instead I moved on, making my way deeper into the forest.

And as I marched through an overgrown passage between trees, I finally saw a deer. He or she was not far away, but had seen or heard me first and was on the move, picking up the pace and getting out of good range before I could even raise my shotgun and get in my sights.

I paused, hoping some other deer may come along on its heels, but no luck. I hiked a bit more and found a new spot that looked over the growth where the deer I saw would have exited into a more open area, and if any deer had some along I would be in a good position.

The last two hours of the day passed by slowly. Someone in the distance fired off a lot of rounds; they were either target shooting or had come upon some prehistoric giant mega deer that took ten shotgun slugs to bring down.

I started to make my way out of the woods towards the end of the day, hoping to maybe get lucky on the way. When legal hunting ended, I unloaded and found my way back to my car.

Another hunting trip without some game to take home, but time in the woods is always time well spent.

Amazon on the East River

The skyline of Long Island City is a glowering army of glass and steel. As the 7 train crawls its way into the Queensboro Plaza station, commuters see buildings under various stages of construction. Many of these are high-priced residential towers boasting views of the Manhattan skyline and closeness to one of the subway lines that run though that part of the city.

The housing boom has moved high tech professionals to Long Island City – it’s a short commute to Manhattan and is still plenty cosmopolitan and relatively young and new. A largely industrial area until things began changing two decades ago, there is still a lot of charm that sanctifies Long Island City with the Whitmanesque aesthetic lacking in Manhattan and much of the more popular areas of Brooklyn.

So it was with a twinge of disappointment that New Yorkers learned that Long Island City was going to be home to one half of Amazon’s “HQ2,” or second headquarters. The city government bent over backwards to bring Amazon to our teeming shores and actual New Yorkers are right to be pissed off.

Full disclosure: I am an Amazon Prime member and I have several books available for purchase on Amazon. The Seattle-based retailer is the goliath it is because it championed online commerce before anyone could make money from it, and they made online shopping easy. I know I can go to Amazon and knock out a good portion of my Christmas shopping in a matter of minutes. So while I may heap some well-deserved hate on the company for its tactics and practices, I can’t deny the company has earned its dominant place among online retailers.

But Amazon engaged in a very slick and underhanded game. Putting out the notice that it was looking to build a large second headquarters in an American city, municipalities fell all over themselves to woo the company. Cities and states handed over reams of data they hadn’t provided to any other corporate caller on infrastructure, industry, demographics and economic forecasts. Amazon has yet another leg up on any and all remaining competitors. More than that, Amazon fielded offers of tax breaks and other lucrative pledges that would embarrass Tammany Hall. And in the end, none of these overtures may have made a difference. The factors that attracted Amazon were there long before the overtures of tax breaks.

Long Island City in Queens, New York and Crystal City, Virginia were the big “winners.” What exactly did they win? In New York’s case its nearly $2 billion in lost tax revenues thanks to guarantees made to the company, in addition for helping to build a helipad.

New Yorkers didn’t exactly break out the champagne to learn Amazon was coming to Queens. 50,000 well-paid tech workers means that already high rents and real estate prices will go up even farther. It means our already overloaded and dysfunctional subways and commuter railroads will be getting that much more crowded. It means more crowded classrooms in public schools, a bigger scramble for resources, and an infusion of shallow West Coast tech culture in our beloved Gotham. The specter of the big tax giveaway had people agreeing that this era of corporate toadying on the part of our political leaders had reached its nadir, especially in a city and state run by Democrats. Even the conservative National Review, no bastion of corporate-bashing Commies, agreed with Democratic Socialist Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez that Amazon’s corporate welfare is wrong.

New York City doesn’t need to play this game. The city makes itself attractive by investing in its infrastructure and working to keep the standards of living high. That means we lock up criminals, keep homeless people off the streets and subways, and make sure those subways are no longer dysfunctional. That’s a lot we have on our plate, and we can’t afford to give away billions in tax breaks.

Let Amazon build its “HQ2” somewhere else if they don’t like paying their taxes. But don’t blame Amazon; New York and Virginia offered them sweet deals and it took them. Amazon didn’t make anyone beg them to come to their city. Our political leaders did that to us, figuring the win of wooing Amazon’s office was worth whatever Faustian bargain they had to make to get it done.

It wasn’t Jeff Bezos who sold New Yorkers down the East River. It was Bill de Blasio and Andrew Cuomo.

 

The rewarding solitude of night driving

This past weekend I went to run some errands and found that our family minivan’s battery had died. Add it to the ‘last thing I needed’ list. We are lucky enough to be a two car family, and while I thought we had jumper cables in our other car, it turns out we did not. I was spared the opportunity to make myself look extra useful or electrocute myself.

I had to wait until after our older children were in bed before I could call AAA and have our car’s battery tended to. That took longer than I thought, and I wound up paying cash for a new battery. We needed it and I know my wife would not have time to go to a garage this week.

I set out on a drive to get cash from the ATM after using all that I had on me to pay for the new car battery. Some of us have become so accustomed to using credit cards or debit cards for just about any purchase over $20, that our trips to our bank’s ATM are infrequent.

Sunday night after 10 p.m. is a quiet time in the Western world. My part of Queens, New York, is a residential area where people are enjoying their last hours of family and freedom before the grind of the workweek picks up again.

Driving alone at night is one of life’s pleasures I used to enjoy more frequently. I had a car in the latter part of high school and through college, and taking long drives was a time I could enjoy solitude and productive daydreaming (even at night) and listen to music. Long walks and runs fulfill this need in city life, but the lure of the open road can’t be duplicated on foot so easily.

It is interesting to see who else is also on the road, what other strangers are enjoying the quiet time to be out and about while most of the nearby world is cloistered in their homes for the night. Drivers are not rushing to get everywhere as much and there’s a modicum of civility that you don’t find during daylight hours.

Sunday nights in particular, are fun times to get out. You can see this with drinking too. With Monday morning looming, not too many people are at the bars, and Sunday night at the bar was a great guilty pleasure during my drinking years.

Cruising down Willets Point Boulevard, few other drivers were on the road. I had a few errands to run and made some lucky green lights, with few others taking up lane space around me.

I got to my bank and went to use the ATM—the machine was giving out only $1, $5, and $100 bills because our financial institutions are losing their basic competencies. No mind, I set out again to drive to the next closest branch, just a mile or so away. Francis Lewis Boulevard is in the middle of repaving, and a big stretch of road has been milled down to a rough, striated surface. It was rough driving where normally it would be smooth; each manhole felt like driving over a pitcher’s mound.

I reached the next branch of the bank, only to find it was no longer there. Banks are closing branches as more people do all their banking online.  I made an illegal U-turn and headed back towards home, stopping at a gas station to feed quarters to an air pump to refill two of our van’s tires. This gas station was a full service gas station, and the attendant stood in his booth, waiting for someone who needed gas. Good for them for being open late on a Sunday,

My business done, I returned home, listening to music and enjoying the quiet streets of Queens before the deluge of the workweek arrived.

Democracy is in the details

Former Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives Thomas P. “Tip” O’Neill is famously quoted as saying, “All politics are local.” He was right. What’s more, so much of what gets decided in our republic doesn’t happen on the televised stage but in the mind-numbing minutia of committees and boards you’ve never heard of unless you are willing to delve into the morass of local politics. But I’m telling you: delve into that morass.

This universe of local community boards and party committees have more sway and control over our politics than one might think, and they are a way to have an outsized influence on your community without having to run for public office. Depending on what you do, you might only need a few hours a month.

And no matter what your politics, you likely agree that the political establishment is decrepit and in need of new blood. Case in point: here in New York, the Democratic Party bosses were nominating candidates for party positions who were not even aware they were running. There were actually people interested in some of these party positions, but the people in charge filed the names of candidates they drew from old lists, thinking they could fudge the paperwork and appoint their own candidates later. The bosses had become accustomed to few showing interest in these party positions. With more people engaged in the political process on the local party level, this kind of rusty machine can’t continue run like that. Why shouldn’t there be a contest for these positions every step of the way—picking candidates who are actually running would be a good first step.

And in addition to the usual local and state races on the ballot Tuesday, there are three ballot initiatives specific to New York City that can shape the future of local politics and open the door for more involvement. The first would mean stricter limits on individual campaign contributions candidates could collect but increase public funding for candidates. The second would create a Civic Engagement Commission under control of the mayor (please vote against this if you live in New York City). And the third would put term limits of a sort on people serving on community boards (they could serve for eight years but then must step down for two years with the ability to reapply). I think a better solution to create more responsive community boards would to make them elected positions—members are currently appointed by borough presidents.

Whatever your position on these or other issues, you won’t change a thing by throwing rocks at someone you hate, marching on Trump Tower, or trolling normies with dank memes. Go vote.

Clearly there is a populist political wave that is cresting with Democrats now after Donald Trump surfed it to victory two years ago. There’s no reason it should stop for either party. In both cases it has widened the debate.

Five years ago, Democrats were scared to call for socialized medicine and Republicans would not have dared question birthright citizenship. Both these topics are rightfully in the mainstream now. There is no reason that ideas should be kept out of the public sphere by old and uninspired machine politics.

Don’t like it? Get out there and do something about it.

In the wake of the latest bloodbath

I saw the headlines on my mobile phone and thought little of it, because grotesque acts of violence are normal now, and actually always have been. A crazed anti-Semite shot 11 people to death in a Jewish temple in Pittsburgh over the weekend.

Here are three ideas that might help:

  1. Mandate more effective surveillance of potentially violent extremists by law enforcement
  2. Create a federal database of people not allowed to own firearms
  3. Increase armed security until you can make progress on 1 and 2.

If someone who survived the Holocaust can’t survive going to a religious service in Pittsburgh, something is seriously wrong with this country. No part of how to fix this should be off the table. And as per usual the country’s reaction to this latest horror show follow predictable partisan scripts.

I shouldn’t be surprised. I thought that the September 11 attacks were so bad that people wouldn’t get away with resorting to the same tired old tropes and I was wrong then. If the horrific deaths of thousands of people on live TV didn’t shake us from unbecoming hackery, why should the massacre of 11 people at a synagogue in Pittsburgh make us change our ways?

When an Islamic terrorist massacred 49 people in Orlando two years ago, leading Democrats lectured us on Islamophobia and xenophobia. When a Christian terrorist killed three people at an abortion clinic that same year, leading Republicans mumbled platitudes about treating the mentally ill. When a mentally ill teenager slaughtered 17 fellow students at a high school earlier this year, the President said the solution was to arm teachers. After this latest shooting in Pittsburgh, the President said more armed guards were the answer. We have an abject failure of leadership throughout our government.

Something has got to be done about too many of the wrong people getting their hands on guns. That is a focus that enjoys broad support. Guns are another divisive issue in this country, but ask the most unwavering N.R.A. member if the people involved in any of these terror attacks/mass shootings should have been able to get a firearm, and they will tell you ‘no.’ Fellow Second Amendment supporters: if we don’t come up with a viable solution, less sympathetic voices will control this issue. Years ago I came up with a proposal to create one federal system that would screen out people deemed too dangerous to own firearms but also overrule the patchwork of often unconstitutional state and local laws that have gun owners rightfully angry.

Part of that is also being able to find dangerous extremists before they become violent. Our First Amendment allows people to believe and advocate anything they want, but most violent extremists leave other clues to violent intent beyond online musings.

It’s very common to see an increased police presence in New York outside of Jewish houses of worship, especially around Jewish holidays. The idea of increased security at synagogues and temples is not out of line. Only calling for more armed guards or armed teachers or clergy is a crap answer to addressing our problem with violence. But increased security will have to do in the meantime. We have to deal with the world as it is now, not as it should be.

 

Dreams of the Mega life

One dark weekday morning and I am standing in my spot at the bus stop, waiting for my bus to work. A car pulls up near the bus stop and a laughing passenger gets out. He’s carrying a plastic bag of clinking beer bottles and wearing a Knights of Columbus satin jacket with a large back patch. He turns and shouts something to the passenger before laughing and starting to walk away.

The sees me standing there in my glum workday “business casual” finery and offers me a beer from his plastic bag. “No thank you,” I tell the man, being appreciative of his generosity. He puts the beer back in his bag and offers me a bottle of hard cider instead. I politely decline again.

He sees I’m going to work and he jokes that he is just getting home from work. He smells of alcohol and emits drunken joviality. Though I left the drinking life nearly a decade ago, I am familiar with this stumbling generosity and the allure of unending good times. Had I followed a different path—different not necessarily meaning better—I could easily be the one drinking until 6:30 in the morning.

I didn’t envy the man being drunk at the crack of dawn, but I envied the ease and appreciation he had for his working life, whatever it is or was. When I get home from work, I am not a bundle of generosity towards strangers but a tired commuter eager to spend some time with my kids before I go to bed, fearful for what work emergencies might consume the rest of my waking day.

This came to mind later that same week when I purchased some tickets for the Mega Millions drawing for a prize that has since ballooned past $1 billion. By any stretch of logic lottery tickets are a waste of time and prey on the poor and working classes. It is people who can often least afford it who spent their money on these dreams printed out on small slips of paper.

The millions of tickets sold for a chance at that prize money was purchased by people dreaming of riches but not necessarily because they want to be rich. People spend their money on lottery tickets because they want to escape the present workday lives that consume much of their time.

A few weeks ago I was able to work from home on a Tuesday and I took my older children to their Pre-K classes. It was one of the best weekdays I’ve had in a long time. The 40-odd minutes I had with my older girls is time I rarely get outside of the rushed weekends. It’s time you can’t get back, and time burns faster than money.

If I had the choice of doubling the money I make at work currently or cutting that in half and not having to go to work every day, no question I would take the latter. And so would a lot of the people who stand on line for lottery tickets. It’s not big mansions or luxury cars we fancy, it’s buying more of our time back for ourselves.

Good luck everyone.

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