Archive | January 2019

A tribute to Burns Night and the Brooklyn of Old

Fifteen years ago, it was a cold night in an apartment in Prospect Heights, Brooklyn where maybe two dozen people gathered for a Burns Night party. Burns Night is January 25 and celebrates the birthday of Robert Burns, the Scottish poet who lived in the late 1700s.

Several of us had brought our volumes of Robert Burns’ poetry, and at any point during the party, a partygoer would shout “Poem!” and silence the festivities for a reading of Burns poem.

The host had traveled to a meat distributor in New Jersey to obtain authentic haggis, a traditional Scottish dish comprised of a sheep’s offal and other ingredients served inside an animal’s stomach. A central ritual of the Burns Night party consisted of our host cutting open the haggis while someone read the Burns poem ‘Address to a Haggis.’

These Burns Night parties were a testament to the greatness of New York City and to the promise and meaning of Brooklyn to so many people. These were eclectic gatherings that showed the power of art to transcend time and place. Here were people of a variety of ethnic backgrounds celebrating a Scottish poet. The host, Roger, is a Peruvian Jew who grew up in Detroit. There was at least one real Scotsman at these parties, or at least he looked the party with a kilt. Maybe none of us had a drop of Scottish blood. Who cares? The power of Burns’ poetry transcends.

Among the guests at Roger’s parties were his frequent music collaborator Scott and Scott’s wife Diane. I once got to dog sit for Scott and Diane’s amazing dog Connolly (full name: Satchel Connolly X) – I picked up their house keys at a local diner where they knew the owners, walked their dog and explored Prospect Heights, which was a real neighborhood.

They were among the most active voices opposing the Atlantic Yards Project, a corrupt boondoggle that forced people out of their homes and businesses to construct luxury housing and a sports stadium. That fight was lost and the Barclays Center now sits on what used to be the part of the vibrant and eclectic Prospect Heights neighborhood. To this day I have not set foot inside the Barclays Center.

Roger returned to Detroit and Scott left Brooklyn and ended up in New Orleans. Diane remained in Brooklyn for a while after their breakup but she later moved to Westchester. All these people are doing well. Roger continues to write brilliantly, Scott has had his photos exhibited and Diane is a Fordham professor who recently published a book.

Those parties and those three people in particular represented Brooklyn to me like nothing else. They had each had come to New York and conquered it on their own, leaving great music and art in their wake. When those three people left Brooklyn, it was a sure sign that the things that made Brooklyn special were gone forever. If the people who embodied the spirit of Brooklyn more than anyone I knew were had left, then Brooklyn had outlived its usefulness.

That’s not to say there is nothing good about Brooklyn. I still go to Coney Island and Prospect Park and there are still music venues in Brooklyn worth your while. But for the most part when I think of Brooklyn I think of overpriced real estate and the hordes of well-off people who are driving up the price of everything.

But people who attended Roger’s Burns Night parties years ago have not forgotten them. A friend recently spent Burns Night at Peter Luger’s Steak House and recited some Burns poems to his family and friends. Diane mentioned Burns night in a school lesson about ethnic foods and culture; sadly her students had not heard of Burns Night.

Roger posted his memories of Burns Night online, noting how he first came across a reading of Burns poetry inside a pub in New Jersey, and woke up the next day in New York determined to be one of the people who would recite Burns poetry.

I stayed up late with my volume of Burns poetry, and read The Bonnie Wee Thing to my wife while holding her hand. It was not the happening party of years ago, but I could not go to bed on Burns Night without reading a Burns poem.

The Burns Night parties in Brooklyn of long ago are gone, but as long as I live I will keep them alive in spirit, and I am not alone.

Aye.

Five years a parent

It is five o’clock on a January morning in 2014 and I’m driving a pickup truck on the Grand Central Parkway. My pregnant wife is in the passenger’s seat. It’s dark and the roads are nearly deserted.

“In a few hours we’re going to be parents,” I tell her. “Isn’t that crazy?” She agrees.

This week our older girls, fraternal twins, will turn five. That’s a half decade of parenting in the can. We have three now, the youngest will be three in June, sharing a birthday with one of her uncles.

Having kids is a definite turning point in everyone’s life, and it brings a kind of happiness that is hard to achieve in other places. But it’s not panacea where unicorns and rainbows to replace the regular sturm und drang of life. All the same stresses and difficulties are there, and now they are there with new mouths to feed and diapers to change. Kids won’t turn you into a better person. You’ll still be an angry curmudgeon if you were one before their birth. But as miserable as your life may get from that point onward, your children will be a consistent reason to be happy, even when they are throwing up on you.

I am extremely fortunate that I went into parenthood with a very wide support network, a steady paycheck and a happy marriage. Not everyone has that. When I was born my parents were half the age I was when I had kids. Neither one had a college degree at the time. I started out way ahead; I have no excuses if my kids become serial killers.

Luckily, our kids are great and continue to inspire us to be better people. I see how bright they are and how they enjoy learning and I want them to never stop loving life or the pursuit of knowledge. Despite the many stresses and strains; my wife and I enjoy our molding, shaping and unconditionally loving these impressionable young lives. It’s an awesome responsibility but also one of unlimited potential.

I vowed not to be the kind of parent that gauged someone’s worth by whether or not they reproduced – I faced enough of that before I had children.

“So do you have a family?” someone asked me at a business reception years before I met my wife. They meant to ask if I was married and had kids, but the question seemed like they were checking to see if I had hatched out of an egg. Well I was raised by wolves and since I’m not biologically wolf I can’t track down the pack that raised me by my sense of smell, so no I guess. —was how I should have answered, but I mumbled a simple ‘no’ and noted I wasn’t married and changed the subject.

And while my kids are crushing life, we must refuse to put their accomplishments in place of our own. No one outside a tight circle of family and friends care how awesome your kids are, and having children is no excuse to fall on your face in every other aspect of life. No slacking.

This weekend we’ll be hosting a kids’ birthday party for the twins with pizza, cake and animals. It will be a big, tiring, stressful day but one that will have a happy ending because we get to spend it with our children.

Five years have gone by fast. Wish us luck on the next fifteen.

 

Demanding a better 2020

As the presidential race of 2020 is already underway, before the office-holders elected in the mid-terms have even taken their oaths of office, it would be a great time for Americans to demand that the level of conversation be switched permanently to ‘grown up.’ The stakes are very high with the looming possibility of a recession, a bitterly divided Congress and an executive branch in a constant churn. It would be a real treat for a few brave candidates to insist on taking the high road and talking about how their policies will benefit the citizenry.

This will run afoul of the zeitgeist of contemporary politics. Rampant partisanship has created a knee-jerk politics where not only is everyone expected to wear their allegiances on their sleeves, but to be at the most ideologically pure part of the spectrum with blind obedience. Facts that may run counter to one’s argument are “Fake News” or “Hate Facts.” Serious adults don’t use terms like that except to mock those that do.

We’re seeing the worst in tantrum politics and mental gymnastics among both major political parties as the current budget impasse over a border wall continues. Trump’s insistence on a border wall is a clear sign he doesn’t understand the issues, and Democrats are hard-pressed to demonstrate any serious commitment to increased border security or give lie to the notion they want open borders.

Both parties once were able to function and understand nuances of policy. Sovereignty and human dignity are not mutually exclusive. It is inexcusable for Americans to support a porous border and deny our right to a sovereign nation. It is also inexcusable that children would die preventable deaths in the wealthiest country in the world, no matter their circumstances. We are a better country than to let people die of common disease or dehydration in detention centers; we also won’t be a country without strong, enforceable borders—there is no contradiction in those statements.

Let’s all admit that our political opponents are not monsters and that seeing the logic in the other side’s argument is not a betrayal of our own ideals. No, people advocating for stopping family separation at the border are not doing so to create some kind of socialist global utopia just as people advocating for tougher border controls are not trying to reproduce the Third Reich on American soil. These are not staggering revelations to the worlds of adults, but these are gut-punching concepts to hyper-partisan audiences that tend to dominate the public conversation these days.

Future generations will look upon these times as days of decay and decline, when a vacuum in leadership and long-standing myopic public policy exacerbated a fractured society. The values that make our society great can endure even if our institutions crumble, but it means a conscious effort to build new communities for those of us with clear vision and willingness to see beyond the outdated prism of our fraying standards.

We can rebuild communities if we leave the echo chambers of media and engage with the world around us. If we can take anything constructive from the Trump candidacy and record in office, it’s that people respond to frank dialogue and people who stick to their guns. Trump trampled several political sacred cows in his road to the White House—I thought his candidacy was dead when he insulted John McCain before the first primary was held. Have no doubt: Trump’s success in winning office came from his being rooted firmly outside the political establishment. You don’t have to be a fraudulent, vulgar ignoramus to break out of the mold and effectively challenge that status quo. Let the barriers Trump broke down let in a better slate of candidates and activists. There are decent people who hold all kinds of political opinions. Hear them out and be one of them.

Let this be the year you speak your mind and demand honesty and understanding from candidates within your own party. The first step of breaking out of our political rut is to embrace the politics of honesty and change on our own terms.

Demand more from the election of 2020 than we got in 2016. We (hopefully) can only go up from here.

2019, a year for bold adults

New Year’s goals are familiar to most. We vow to exercise more and eat better, travel more, and read more books. Yes to all of those things. But there’s an important resolution that is more important and helps spur others. Let this year also be the year we embrace being bold adults and demand those around us be the same.

Being a bold adult means being willing to face hard truths and decipher realistic perceptions into coherent action, in repeated situations.

We see the division between these true adults and the rest of society when a violent incident occurs in public. Invariably, there are several videos of the incident made by bystander who could have made a difference but chose not to instead. If only half of the mobile phone zombies we see on our sidewalks and subways actually took some meaningful action when these incidents occur, we’d be in a much better position. The true, bold adults are the ones who step in to stop the fight, or help the injured person or even call the police. Sure, having a dozen cell phone videos of a subway stabbing will help police solve the crime, but my gut tells me most of these on-the-spot auteurs are not planning to aid law enforcement but instead contribute to a viral spectator culture that is hollow and shameless.

There are too few people willing to be the adults in the room. This lack of maturity even spawned the term “adulting,” which is used by grown people amazed that they are behaving appropriately for their age groups. I can’t hate on these people too much though. I was still living in my family’s basement at the age my parents had two kids. I like to think I have made up for lost time.

Earlier in the evening on New Year’s Eve, my wife and I took our children to a small party thrown by people in our neighborhood. My wife noted that even though many of the people at the party lived within a few short blocks of each other, few of us had ever met. And here was a hopeful sign. People breaking out of the rote functions of surface celebration to have a meaningful interaction with neighbors. It’s a much-needed reaction to a culture that increasingly exacerbates the superficial and exploits the chasms between identity groups: new tribes form communities that work for them.

The parents gathered their children in a circle to help count down and ring in the New Year a few hours early so we could get our kids to bed at a decent hour. Then the adults cleaned up and went home, to welcome 2019 after the children were asleep.

I rang in the New Year while lifting weights, not because I’m a roid-raging meathead determined to inflate myself to grotesque proportions, but because I’m planning to make this year one of continued self-improvement. I have been a mobile phone zombie myself at times, and the staid and stressful routines of a middle-aged office worker have taken their toll. I have no one to blame but myself for being generally out-of-shape, but I wanted to set the tone right for the New Year in that this has to change.

Being the bold adult in the room can be a scary prospect. No one wants to be the one to put their head out, to risk ostracization or attack. But you will be glad you went forward and did what needs doing, turned away from what the herd is doing and tackled the business of life head-on.

2019 is going to be a great year. Make it so.

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