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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.

Late Christmas trees are the best Christmas trees

My family puts up a traditional Christmas tree. Well, not that traditional. A truly traditional Christmas tree would be paraded through town and then set on fire.

But Christmas is a festive time of year, a time when our shared pagan heritage is proudly on display, albeit via the yoke of Christianity. And, godless as I am, I always put up a Christmas tree, a real tree. I can’t abide plastic shrubbery when the sweet green smell of the forest is so desperately needed by city dwellers.

I have friends who put up their trees before the month of December, and for me this is much too early. And we prefer to wait until at least the 15th in our family, as our girls’ maternal grandfather’s birthday is the 14th, and we do not want to cloud that celebration any more than it already is by holiday circumstance.

Right after Thanksgiving, temporary outdoor Christmas tree shops set up on sidewalks in parking lots, and shopping areas throughout the city. In Inwood, Broadway near 207th Street was my place of choice and the people who often manned that shop had come down from Canada. Some come from Pennsylvania or Vermont or New Hampshire. Last year we bought our tree in the shopping center on Linden Place and the Whitestone Expressway Service Road—not the most picturesque place to buy a tree but it got the job done and we went home with a nice tree.

Years ago when I was living alone in Ozone Park, I didn’t get around to getting a tree until Christmas Eve or the day before, and managed to get a $5 tree for $3. I tipped generously but never had that kind of luck again.

My three daughters and I set out on a mission to buy a tree this past Saturday, 10 days before Christmas. We drove to Douglaston, Queens, where a length of sidewalk beside a high church yard wall along Northern Boulevard was an impromptu Christmas tree store. We found parking down a side street and arrived at the tree stand to the sounds of Charlie Brown’s theme song being played over a PA system. The man who helped us with our tree gave candy canes to the girls. Within a few minutes I paid cash for the tree ($58, which is pricy for a tree but by New York City standards that’s a good deal), tipped the guy who helped us, and we were on our way back home.

Our Christmas tree has punk rock ornaments from awesome bands like The Spunk Lads, The Bullys, World War IX, Skum City, and (self-promotional plug here) Blackout Shoppers. And almost all of these come from Superfan Heather, New York’s best and possibly most prolific punk rock band photographer (her boyfriend, Admiral Yammomoto, would be a close second). These ornaments go on the tree every year, as do ornaments made my wife and her brother as children that date back to the 1970s.

Since three young children worked on decorating the tree, my wife had the foresight to separate the non-breakable ornaments and focus on using them to decorate the tree. We’ll have plenty of time to use the fragile ornaments when our girls are older.

With lights and a bit of silver garland, and a healthy heap of ornaments, our tree was ready pretty quickly. We’ll remember to water it and work to be worthy of its pagan heritage.

 

Ready for a Comeback

The occasion of one’s birthday is always a time, however brief, for reflection and taking stock of where you are. This past weekend saw the start of my 46th year on this Earth, and I have a lot to be happy about and celebrate but it’s also the start of a comeback.

There is always room to improve and make better. If you’re not striving for something better at all times, then things fall into disrepair and a sad, atrophying stasis. The search, the striving is the goal and the state of being everyone needs. Merely getting by doesn’t cut it.

That’s not to say you shouldn’t enjoy some time to relax and be grateful for what you have, but if you’re not happy about something, then change is a must.

And like everyone else, there are things I am not happy about. I am very lucky in that I have my health and a lucid mind and can get a start on turning things around. But things have been in a bit of a rut: I go to work, I come home and eat and put kids to bed, I answer more work emails and fall asleep trying to get something done. I wake up early the next day and do it again.

One glimmer of light in all this is creativity. If I can get something creative done, I can have some peace of mind, and right now I am preparing for a show at the end of October.

Having young children and seeing how quick life can move can be both terrifying and encouraging. It seems like just yesterday I was welcoming the first of our children into the world; the older of our kids will be five in January and they are well versed in navigating the parental politics of our household for their own advantage.

But seeing how fast life moves doesn’t just mean that our youthful days are left in the dust, it means we can create new things for ourselves quickly as well. Less than a decade ago I was living alone with not many prospects for career advancement or a family life. Now I have three children and a well-established career in public relations. In a few years, I can be in a different place; the pace of change is fast, which means we can put ourselves on a better path quickly.

So often we look back on things with regret, and I’ve been as guilty of that as anyone. We will always, and I can tell you million times of how true this is: we will always regret the things we don’t do more than the things we do.

So no matter where you are or how bad things seem or how off the rails the life you imaged is, don’t worry or spend too much time looking back on past mistakes. Start doing things to set things right again. You won’t be sorry. It’s never too late.

 

Go for it.

College Point discovery: The Poppenhusen Institute

It was a Saturday and we were looking for something family friendly to do with the kids.

For a long time, I studiously avoided anything deemed “family friendly” as it was either specifically for children like ‘Sesame Street’ or something that was toned down and devoid of any of the reality-driven spice of life. But my time as a parent has changed my view and definition.

For us, “family friendly” doesn’t mean for something sanitized or dumbed-down, it means we want to be able to find a place to change a diaper. We are not afraid of adult content corrupting our children except in extreme examples; we’re afraid of adult content boring the crap out of our children.

Case in point: we looked up local events on our local Macaroni Kid and found an Oktoberfest nearby. You wouldn’t normally think that an Oktoberfest celebration would be a place to take children, that it would be nothing but loud, beer-soaked hipsters being dramatically unaware. And maybe in Brooklyn that would be the case, but the Poppenhusen Institute of College Point, Queens proved that wrong. We live not too far from this institution, which is 150 years old now. A center for German culture, it’s evolved to become a lot more without losing sight of its original cultural mission.

College Point is somewhat of an out-of-the-way place by New York City standards. There’s almost a small community village feeling to it as its small businesses have thrived. Driving down 14th Street, where the Institute is, the businesses of College Point Avenue recede and the street is a bit narrower and more residential, until you get closer to the water, where more industrial businesses are. The Poppenhusen Institute is bordered by businesses but in an area which is still largely residential. It’s got a fenced-in property (another bonus for bringing small children) and is a magnificent building that dates to 1868.

Being the day of the fall equinox, the weather was perfect for the outdoor event, which was held in the shaded back yard of the Institute. Decorated with blue and white balloons, we paid $18 admission and that included a lot of free entertainment and an area of games for kids. There was free face painting for children and prizes as well.

On site was an award-winning artist, Brian Lipperd, painting portraits. He produced a great portrait of your youngest daughter and touched it up when she smeared it. This artist formerly worked as a portrait artist in Florence, Italy and has had other prestigious residences around the world and will be teaching art classes at the Poppenhusen Institute. You think they have awesome portrait artists at Chuck E Cheese? Think again.

The Institute was once a village community center for College Point, it even served as a local sheriff’s station and still has two small jail cells that housed town drunks or other minor miscreants. It was the site of the first free public kindergarten in the United States. It has a magnificent performance space as well as an exhibit of early Native American life of the area.

The food was affordable and we bought hot dogs for the kids and my wife and I enjoyed some bratwurst, as it was an Oktoberfest and that felt like the right thing to do. There was traditional German music and men in lederhosen and women in traditional German dresses performed dances. My wife came in second place in a beer stein holding contest, winning a nice beer stein filled with beer.

The Poppenhusen Institute holds painting classes for children and has numerous performances and things worth doing. It is well worth the trip to College Point to visit this cultural treasure.

 

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