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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.

There is no such thing as too many books

“The reader, the booklover, must meet his own needs without paying too much attention to what his neighbors say those needs should be.”

—Theodore Roosevelt

“We need to make books cool again. If you go home with somebody and they don’t have books, don’t fuck them.”

― John Waters

 

When I first moved back to New York City as an adult, I made it a point to make regular pilgrimages to The Strand to stock up on books. There was no way I could manage to leave there without several bags of books.

My small studio in Queens had two windows that looked out over a bus stop on 101st. Avenue and Woodhaven Boulevard. One of those windows was home to my air conditioner, the other window became my extended library. I already had a hutch bookcase filled with books but as my trips to The Strand and other bookstores multiplied, I needed more space for my books. Soon I was picking up plastic milk crates I found on the street to use as bookshelves. Then I acquired more milk crates, and soon had to double-stack books in them. More than once I found a great deal on a classic book at The Strand and bought it only to find that I already had that book at home.

When I moved to new apartment a few years later, I had space for actual bookshelves and bought four of them. They were quickly filled.

No longer single and free to binge at bookstores, my wife and I are now in the process of trying to make more space in our apartment for our family of five. That includes making more space in our living room, which currently houses most of our books. It is not an easy task.

It is not easy to part with books, nor should it be. Each book is an adventure waiting to happen, to give away a book without having read it is to deny a future possibility, a potential new thrill or idea. To turn away from books is to turn away from inspiration, from moving dreams and a new way of looking at life. Books are the lifeblood of the soul, and the building blocks of a civilized society.

Some purists may not forgive me for trying to adapt to the confines of space in our urban environment and using a Kindle. I know, I know: there is no substitute for the printed page, and the satisfying heft of a hardcover tome cannot be replicated by any electronic device. I agree. But as a commuter it is helpful to be able to read things with one hand, and while I would love to fill every spare inch of wall space in my apartment with shelves full of books, my kids need space to sleep and play. The Kindle has been a great evolution in the reading life if you can adapt to it. Some die-hards will not have it and I understand. If space and convenience were not factors, I’d be there.

But I have not given up printed books altogether. I will buy printed books when I can and use the Kindle as much as possible as well.

My collection of printed books will continue to grow, albeit a bit slower than in my bachelor days. My children are growing up in a home with plentiful books. They already love reading and if I fail in every other aspect of life, I have already achieved great success there.

 

Following the footsteps…

 

I was in California on September 11, 2001. I was there for work in a hotel room getting ready to go to a conference the company I worked for was putting on. I heard someone pass by my hotel room door talking on a cell phone saying someone had flown a plane into the World Trade Center. By the time I turned on the television, the South Tower had already collapsed and a plane had already crashed into the Pentagon. I knew right away that our country was under attack and I felt helpless and angry. I watched the North Tower collapse in my boxer shorts with shaving cream all over my face.

My story is not unique. I’m among the millions of New Yorkers who watched savages destroy thousands of innocent lives and remake our skyline. But hand-in-hand with the horror and anger is the unrivaled admiration for the first responders that gave their lives and showed that people could be at their best when things were at their worst.

One of those first responders was Stephen Siller, a firefighter who ran through the Brooklyn – Battery Tunnel to get to the Trade Center on the day of the attacks and perished in the South Tower collapse.

This past Sunday I was among the more than 30,000 people who followed Siller’s footsteps in the Tunnel to Towers 5k.

The event loses none of its effect if you’ve done it before and if you haven’t done it, you should.

The run begins with a lot of waiting around. For an event this large, it is well-organized but it still means large, slow-moving crowds. The run ceremony began at 9 and the run officially starts at 9:30 a.m. I was in Wave C, the third wave of runners, and I didn’t cross the START line until 10 a.m.

First responder groups, corporate groups, school groups, teams of family members paying tribute to their fallen loved ones, college students there for fun and adventure—almost every kind of city denizen is present at the 5k. Firefighters come from all over the world to run in homage to Siller, many of them doing it in their heavy firefighting gear. This is no easy task in the Indian summer heat.

Standing around waiting in the hot sun will get you tired before the race begins, and then the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel is very hot and crowded. People who had every intention of running may find themselves on the sidelines walking, with others trying to get around them. It’s a bad jostle but a jovial one, with chants of U.S.A.! U.S.A.! breaking out spontaneously throughout the passage.

The Tunnel to Towers run and walk is perhaps the largest gathering in the city that can still generate massive amounts of goodwill and cooperation. Runners and first responders thanked one another. There were high fives and handshakes all around. Despite tens of thousands of people constantly bumping into one another and stepping on one another’s feet, I heard no harsh words uttered and saw no arguments; try finding that on your average subway commute.

The sacrifices of those who gave their lives on September 11, 2001 cannot be sullied by contemporary political strife or bent to serve a narrow purpose. These sacrifices are heroism in their truest and purest form, and the solemn honors we pay to those heroes help give our city a form of peace.

A friend who lost two cousins in the Trade Center attacks did the run today – and raised $10,000 for the Stephen Siller Foundation this year alone—had this to say afterward:

“Today I saw love and beauty, respect and pride, camaraderie and patriotism. I saw love. Everywhere. I didn’t see dissent. Hatred. Anger. I saw love. And for that, I’m truly grateful.”

Science is usually our friend

This weekend our family attended an event called the Queens SOUP that was hosted by the Greater Flushing Chamber of Commerce. The event raises money for a worthwhile community group and participants vote for a winning group from among four that make presentations for projects. My wife was one of the presenters for the Flushing C.S.A.

The winning group was the Lewis H. Latimer House’s Summer Tinker Lab. Lewis Latimer was a prominent African-American scientist who contributed greatly to the invention of the light bulb and was instrumental in the spreading use of electricity. His former home is a preserved historic site in Flushing. The Latimer House’s presentation consisted of a music demonstration that allowed children to use a circuit and a laptop to make music with basic household items.

Our twins love music and it was great to watch them thrill at the discovery of the circuit concept and to have that associated with music. We want our girls to join the Tinker Lab program when they are old enough. The relatively small grant that the Latimer House received was nonetheless a victory for science.

Earlier that same day, thousands of people marched around the country in a “March for Science,” protesting the current White House’s policies that labels climate change theory as either a hoax or exaggerated. The march also looked to show disgust with the general anti-intellectual attitude that many conservative establishment politicians have tended to embrace in recent decades.  Science is great and is certainly worth of the reverence, but let’s take a look at what adhering to science means.

“Science” to me means the skilled application of learning through the empirical method of observation, experimentation, and theorization. It usually results in a consensus view among those who practice the scientific method.

Science does not abide by any values other than those used by those conducting those experiments. Dr. Jonas Salk, who discovered the polio vaccine, was a scientist. So was Josef Mengele, the Nazi doctor who conducted cruel experiments on victims at Auschwitz. They each made discoveries that advanced the causes of medicine, but they are rightfully not held in the same esteem by our civilization.

Science cannot be claimed as a mantle by any partisan cause. The people who “Marched for Science” this past weekend were embracing those scientific findings that supported their ideas. We may agree with those ideas, but we can’t ignore that these are values-driven at their core.

Science will ultimately thwart attempts to make it the show horse of any political movement. If the mastery of science is by itself our only measure, then J. Robert Oppenheimer should be on as many t-shirts as Neil deGrasse Tyson. He’s not. And like our politics, scientific consensus is subject to change. What passes for common sense today might be considered foolhardy balderdash in a few years’ time.

So let us embrace science at every turn and let our children know it is fun. But let’s not pretend that science is always our friend. It’s going to prove us wrong at some point and leave us with very uncomfortable conclusions. But living life means facing those awkward moments and making sure your kids are prepared to face them too.

For science!

How to be a pedestrian in New York City

New York is a very walkable city. We have horrible traffic that makes driving regularly in the more densely populated parts of the city nearly impossible and a grossly imperfect but extensive mass transit system that makes owning a car in the city unnecessary.

Walking the streets of Gotham is mostly a joy. But there are also a lot of frustrations in getting about on foot, as not everyone is up on their pedestrian etiquette.

I think we can safely exempt tourists from some of the walking rules, because we need their money to keep the city’s economy afloat and many tourists are from far-away places that don’t have the same customs or don’t have the same walking-friendly infrastructure. Lots of American suburbs, for instance, don’t have sidewalks in their residential area (something that threw me for a loop when I moved from Yonkers to Yorktown Heights).

Here are five essential rules for how to be a pedestrian in New York City:

Keep to the right of the sidewalk or stairs. In most countries people drive to the right. The same applies to pedestrian traffic just as it would automobile traffic. Walk to the right and you don’t have weave around a million people going the opposite direction. It’s a very simple concept and usually works well for motorized traffic.

Stay focused on walking. You may be a master multi-tasker when you are behind your desk at work or in the kitchen of your home. The sidewalks of New York are a different place. Do not look read a book or mobile phone while walking. You don’t look like a deep literary soul when you try to read a book while walking, you look just as stupid as a smart phone zombie but twice as pretentious.

Keep your eyes ahead of you and avoid gawking. There a millions of dazzling sights and no city in the world makes for better people watching than our bustling Gotham. It’s tempting to soak in all that’s around you and give in to the wanderlust and marvel at the vibrant life of our city, but some of us are trying to get to work or catch a bus or subway. If you keep your eyes straight ahead and let the foot traffic ebb and flow around you easily, you’ll get to where you are going with much less of a hassle. The bearded strangers trying to make eye contact with you are likely panhandlers and not the next Walt Whitman.

Remain considerate of others. Walking three abreast is OK in some places, but we have limited sidewalk space and if you are traveling in a group, others are going to be moving quicker and need to move around you. Our sidewalk cut-ins are often limited and not as easily maneuvered by people in wheelchairs and the elderly, so go ahead and step upon the curb like the healthy person you are.

Remember when cars and other vehicles have the right of way. Pedestrians have the right of way, except when they don’t. It’s OK to cross against the light when there are no cars coming, but if there are, stay out of their way. Pedestrians who blindly walk into traffic like they haven’t a care in the world are the ones I prefer to see smooshed.

So please be alert. Everything in New York requires thought and mastery, even walking from place to place. Life is too short to stumble through it cluelessly. If you focus on where you’re going you’ll be a happier person when you get there.

I’ll always be friends with someone you hate

“Say it’s not so, Matt,” my friend’s message read, accompanied by a photo of a public figure that I don’t know personally but follow on social media. I explained that I follow/befriend people on social media that I often disagree with, and that while I find some of this person’s views extreme, they were not the murderous villain popularly portrayed in the mainstream press.

My explanation was lost and I found myself “blocked.” It’s a real shame. This is someone I’ve been friends with since college that is generally open-minded and intellectually strong. I know this person from a college debate society, the whole purpose of which is to listen to people you disagree with and debate them peaceably without tantrums or emotional self-immolation.

Maybe this person will find it in their heart to befriend me on social media again, but if not, so be it. I can’t please everyone and I can’t apologize for the opinions of others.

No matter who you are or what your politics, you are going to find I am friends with someone you hate. I can guarantee that to everyone: someone on my list of friends is going to piss you off.

I won’t have it any other way. I refuse to live in an echo chamber only occupied by people who share my view of the world. No matter how right you think you are, no one is above having their opinions and perceptions challenged and there is absolutely nothing virtuous about a closed mind.

In our era of divided politics, trolls on both sides of the spectrum feel morally justified in becoming increasingly uncivil. I’ve had a few people block me or “unfriend” me. One even called me names and blocked me so I couldn’t see or respond, a cowardly low. People engage in this kind of behavior when they have no real ideas or don’t have the wherewithal to defend their beliefs.

But I also have lots of friends that don’t block me. The friends with more substantial progressive activist bona fides – the people who’ve actually been in the streets and done battle with the cops, who’ve been to jail for their activism or actually rumbled with real Nazis in the real world – don’t find the need to block me on social media or prove their online virtue through their computer keyboards. I have friends who are law enforcement officers and military veterans who have been shot at in the line of duty at home and abroad; none of them have expressed horror that I’m friends with people that are communists or anarchists. They don’t need to wear their patriotism or their toughness on their sleeves, they live it every day.

Fortunately, the majority of my friends are confident enough in who they are to listen to other’s people’s views. That doesn’t mean they agree with me or like that I’m online friends with people they deplore, but they have strong enough wits to disagree without name calling.

I can’t judge people based on their ideology alone. Some of the people considered most virtuous in public life have been some of the most miserable human beings; egos rendering them incapable of treating others with dignity and respect. How you treat the waiter or waitress at a restaurant tells me much more about you than whatever politician you voted for last November. So many people who check all the right virtue boxes can’t be bothered to act like a decent human being in real life.

I hope my friend comes back online. I won’t block or unfriend someone just because they hold opinions we may despise. There’s something about my collection of friends that everyone can hate. But I have a great group of friends nonetheless. I’ll never apologize for keeping an open mind to different ideas, no matter how offensive they might seem to others. If that makes enemies out of some friends, then that’s too bad.

If you’re not making enemies, you’re not living life.

What Would Theodore Roosevelt Do?

In 1895 anti-Semitic German politician Hermann Ahlwardt came to speak in New York City. Local Jews were very upset and there was political pressure on the police department not to provide Ahlwardt any protection. The police commissioner at the time, Theodore Roosevelt, made sure to provide the visiting speaker with an adequate police escort; he also made sure that every officer in that security detail was Jewish. There was no better response than what Roosevelt did, and his gesture symbolized New York’s and America’s commitment to freedom of speech and freedom of religion.

This President’s Day, it is worth our time to look at who we consider our favorite president. For me there is no question: Theodore Roosevelt was one of the greatest Americans who ever lived and was one of our greatest presidents.

There’s something for people of all political persuasions to like in Teddy Roosevelt. He believed in a just and fair America that respected the environment and he believed in a united country not beset by the kinds of divisions lesser leaders have allowed to fester. He supported women’s suffrage and also wanted America to be a forceful leader in the world with a very strong military He fought against monopolies, passed important laws keeping our food and medicines safe, and created national parks that protect millions of acres of land to this day.

Theodore Roosevelt came back from great tragedy that stalled his political career—his wife and mother died on the same day—and was the youngest person ever to become president. While most former presidents today cash in on their notoriety with lucrative book deals and speaking engagements, Theodore Roosevelt went on a South American safari that nearly killed him after losing the election of 1912. He was a war hero who braved Spanish cannon fire on San Juan Hill. He also once delivered a lengthy speech after being shot!

Few people in public office today could pass the character test and compare favorably to Roosevelt. He held to a code of honor that is unknown among most people we know in public life. Though he was born in to wealth and privilege that could have shielded him from hardship, he purposely strove to make himself strong and do things that were difficult. He lived his life for constant adventure and self-improvement. He was an avid reader and martial arts practitioner.

Truth, character, loyalty to the country above your immediate or self-serving interests: these are concepts that may seem quaint or get a lot of lip service, but Theodore Roosevelt lived them and expected America’s leadership to. Have our leaders lived up to the ideals Roosevelt set? How many of us can claim the levels of character and boldness that Roosevelt had? In my dreams I’m half as bold.

Though he is more closely associated with Oyster Bay on Long Island, Teddy Roosevelt was born in New York City. A few blocks from where I work in Manhattan is Theodore Roosevelt’s birthplace. Sometime soon I will take time to visit and contemplate on American greatness and how we might improve upon it. In this and all matters of life, it pays to ask: What would Theodore Roosevelt do?

 

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