Thursday, April 13, 2017

area of refuge

In the building I just moved into, filled with loft apartments in a former knitting mill, each floor has a designated “Area of Refuge.” These locations are situated near each floor’s entrance to the elevator and on the landings of the four floors, at least one on each end of the building. Residents, especially those with special needs, are instructed to gather in an Area of Refuge. There’s a callbox and a panel where one can “Push for Help.”

 Naturally, as with nearly all signs I encounter, this got me thinking. Don’t we all need an Area of Refuge, at least for part of the day, most days?

 As a grade school student, I once had to deliver something to the teachers’ lounge. The room was billowing with smoke from cigarettes and pipes. I was a messenger visiting a foreign country.  It was shocking. But today I would have to conclude that room was an Area of Refuge for those teachers. They needed a break. They seemed so much more relaxed and jovial. They were remarkably different from their classroom selves. Among them were likely non-smokers as well. It didn’t matter. All were there for a common purpose, despite the health dangers we now proclaim, but did not then.

 If we need Areas of Refuge for work, we need them elsewhere, too: at home, at play, in public, in private.

 Churches and other houses of worship over the centuries have served as sanctuaries, Areas of Refuge. This decade, whole cities, hundreds of them, have offered to be Areas of Refuge for undocumented immigrants.

 We all need a safe harbor now and then, legal or not. People in recovery programs understand the absolute value of radical hospitality when they enter a room where a meeting is held. They depend on it as an Area of Refuge. No questions asked. All are welcome.

 Today, near my new residence, walking to the nearby library, I saw a sign in a window of the elementary school (they used to call it a “magnet school,” but that’s another topic for another time). The sign said “Rescue Window.” I recalled times in my life when I was looking for a Rescue Window anywhere I could find one:  hallucinogens, alcohol, sex, you-name-it. Then I needed a Rescue Window for what I thought was my Rescue Window, because nothing was working.

 What’s your Rescue Window? Food? Yoga? Running? Hiking? Relationships? Quilting?

 The point is, we all need Areas of Refuge and Rescue Windows, even if we think “that’s for someone else.” We tend to think such places — real physical locations or more metaphorical ones — are for those less fortunate, the underprivileged, the hunted. That assumption is wrong.

 We all crave these things. Otherwise, there’d be no need of man caves, social clubs, knitting circles, places of worship, booster clubs, book clubs, flower guilds, PTOs, union halls, or bars.

 The lingering mystery, however, is “what do we do when we get there?” What do we do when we arrive at the Area of Refuge? Tell jokes? Calm nerves? (How?) Hold hands? Meditate? Pray? Sing rock ‘n’ roll oldies together? Tell ghost stories to each other?

 At the Rescue Window, are we reaching in or reaching out?

 The answers to these questions are endless. And I submit the answers don’t matter all that much, not as much as we imagine.

 What matters is being there, arriving at the Area of Refuge or Rescue Window. Together as we can be — awkwardly, fearfully, and hopefully.

Monday, March 27, 2017

how do you spell STOP?

You see the signs adorning quiet corners: STOP MEANS STOP. The declaration serves as an addendum, a gloss, on the larger sign on the same metal post sporting the familiar white on red octagon commanding drivers to halt.

This codicil strikes me as a suburban phenomenon, reflecting a hyperattentive concern for propriety and rectitude. It’s hard to imagine seeing these persnickety postscripts on the boulevards and avenues of a major city. The thousands of add-ons would cost too much. Besides, who would have time to read them? Move along, people. Nothing to see here.

The ubiquitous STOP is a verb, not a noun announcing the type of action required at the junction. STOP MEANS STOP presumably means drivers who are supposed to be stopping are merely pausing. Or not stopping at all. If we are going to parse propriety, let's go further. Perhaps the editorial sign commenting on STOP should instead say: “'Stop' means stop, not the simulation or approximation of the cessation of forward movement. Now please leave our perfect patch of Paradise.”

What does the law say? What is the required duration of the driver’s pause? It’s not really a matter of duration. The answer varies for each state, but typically it means a complete or full stop, meaning no forward momentum, the needle on the speedometer at 0. (Speedometers don’t have needles any more; call it Digital Zero.) It means, your car wheels can’t be moving. The popularly believed 3 seconds required for a stop seems more myth than reality. (“Full stop.” That’s how our British friends refer to the end punctuation we call a period. Try using that phrase in your next argument. See if it puts a full stop to the debate.)

The notion of a proper duration at a stop sign invites the question: Can you stop for too long, say, the duration of one lap around the rosary beads or malas reciting your mantra?

Can you be prosecuted for indulging in the full metaphysical fruits of your quotidian caesura?

And what about pedestrians? At the octagonal red and white sign, must pedestrians take a deep bow and exhale? It might be the one pause in your day that refreshes.

Buddhists talk of the value of stopping, the reward of pausing to gaze at the interconnectedness of all manner of things.

Is this what we are called upon to practice when we see STOP MEANS STOP?

The problem with STOP MEANS STOP is that it risks sending the opposite of its intended message. You would never post such a message unless the word "stop" were being routinely ignored. So, how does replicating the word, repeating it, strengthen its force? Does it not weaken the word "stop"? Does it mimic the situation of a parent remonstrating a child, perhaps loudly, as the child clearly knows the word carries no force if not enforced?

This invites comparisons with other reduplicative expressions, some of a more serious nature. “No means no” surely delivers an unequivocal expression regarding the lack of sexual consent. What about broader, societal applications of this syntactic formula? We can explore endless variations.

Peace means peace. War means war. Love means love. Hate means hate.

Stop this already means stop this already!

Thursday, March 23, 2017

watch your head

You’ve heard it, often. “Watch your head.” Someone is caring, urging caution to protect you from injury or pain. Parents say it to children, spouses to each other, friends and coworkers, too. “Watch your head.” Long ago, as a cheeky wiseguy, I chirped, “You can’t watch your head. Not literally. Your eyes can only do that partially. You can watch your nose, part of it. Oh sure, you can watch a reflection of your head. But that’s different.”

Not that funny then and not that funny now.

Despite the challenges of literally watching your head — and only a fussbudget would notice this — we know what the person who says it means. We understand we are being told to proceed with attentiveness. We are are being warned to slow dowm. Does it work? Does proceeding in such a manner guarantee less chance of injury? I’m not sure. An athlete or warrior in the heat of battle might interpret it to be “Be alert.” But you wouldn’t necessarily slow down. On the other hand, I have personally found the dictum “the faster the slower,” from UCLA basketball great John Wooden, valuable when I am tempted to anger or quick to say the wrong thing.

From another perspective, “watch your head” proffers a different aspect of wisdom. If the phrase is telling us to practice introspection, some rewarding results might be forthcoming. If it means, “as a person thinks, so they will act,” then it’s a good reminder. Recovery programs talk about a “thinking disease,” meaning that addicts and others fall off the beam long before a substance is ingested or otherwise taken. It’s the addictive or alcoholic thinking that precedes the action, they are told. So, “watching one’s head” in that context would presumably signal awareness and vigilance.

In my youth, Jefferson Airplane’s Grace Slick sang “feed your head” repeatedly with fervor at the conclusion of the hit 1967 single “White Rabbit.” The lyrics were considered one of pop music’s early instances of a drug reference, albeit oblique. But the song is filled with characters from Lewis Carroll’s  “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland,” and on that level alone it is delightful. I have long admired the Airplane’s unbridled evangelism for expanding one’s mental and spiriual horizons. They put it out there, without apologies. And why not? I’m not belittling the serious risks of the misuse of pharmaceuticals, legal or otherwise, but I salute the song for being consistent and honest and unabashedly provocative.

I am mildly surprised that booksellers or educators haven’t seized on this notion of “feed your head.” Perhaps they have. Granted, feeding and watching your head are two different concepts. (Notice how I’ve drifted slightly. That’s how my mind operates.) But they go hand in hand. If you watch what you are feeding your head you can reap the most benefits. 

Somehow that doesn’t ring true. It signals a cautionary manner that might stifle curiosity. Can these two notions — watch your head and feed your head — coexist within one person? I suspect they can. I’d go so far as to say they must. They represent a dynamic that plays out in all of us: temperance vs. abandon, safety vs. risk, prudence vs. recklessness. So watch your head, but be sure to feed it, too.

Now excuse me as I take my chances out there, bruises and all.

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

The Embarrassment Manifesto

I am embarrassed. I have become embarrassed. I am embarrassing. Switch pronouns. We are embarrassed. We have become embarrassed. We are embarrassing. We are being embarrassed. We are an embarrassment. "We" here stands for the Disunited States of America. The good ol' DSA. What is it to be embarrassed? Embarrass: "to perplex, throw into doubt." The estimable Online Etymology Dictionary tells us "embarrass" comes to us from the French, meaning "to block," which came to us from the Italian "to bar," which came from Latin. Embarrass came to mean "to hamper, hinder," and then later "make (someone) feel awkward." Other meanings over the centuries have even included "mental state of unease." With this FACTUAL word history in mind, no matter where you perch on today's razored fence of political discourse, you cannot deny the reality of embarrassment. Whether you lament it or celebrate, it is here. The Age of Embarrassment. Whether you are on the barricades or hiding from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement [Embarrassment] (ICE), welcome to Embarrassmentville. "Welcome" is hereby spelled e-m-b-a-r-r-a-s-s by edict of Embarrassing Executive Order No. 001. So, get used to it, boys and girls -- and anyone in-between or off the charts. Get used to a state of being perplexed, doubtful, blocked, barred, hampered, or hindered. Get used to feeling awkward and ill at ease. Get used to being embarrassed or making others feel embarrassed. Please show your Embarrassment Visa on the way out the door.

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Friday, January 06, 2017

winter haiku 4

last night's snow dusting

searing albino light bath

melting flake by flake


Monday, January 02, 2017

Sunday, January 01, 2017

winter haiku 2

footsteps crunching time's

iridescent snowscape sheen

chickadee's leafy song

Saturday, December 31, 2016


Funny how solid objects "move." Intriguing how angle and perspective alter everything. The five emerald onion domes of St. John the Baptist Ukrainian Catholic Church seem to sit just above the railroad bridge as you proceed west on Erie Boulevard toward West Genesee Street. But in my mind I think of them as residing a ways to the left, up the hill, Tipperary Hill. The iconic (literally and figuratively) church is to the left -- from certain angles. As the road bends or turns, you bend or turn with it. Each turn or bend presents a different perspective. An aerial view offers a whole different angle. Up close, far away, above or below, all different perspectives. Perspective is perception. Hashtag metaphor. 


I walked our dog in Burnet Park, where she gamboled in the snow, merrymaking and frolicking just for me, to give me a smile, as she sported in the fluffy lake effect snow. No. You're right. She did it for pure dog love, total abandon, canine self, yielding to the moment and the next the next the now.