Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Out of the Depths

In some parts of New York City, especially in the outer boroughs – that is Staten Island, Queens, Brooklyn and the Bronx – the subway lines often run above ground on elevated tracks, affording riders breathtaking views of the Manhattan skyline as well as graffiti clad buildings, roof tops cluttered with satellite dishes, laundry hanging out to dry, billboards, and occasional glimpses into private dwellings and public office spaces. While there are a few places in northern Manhattan where the tracks are also elevated, for the most part all the subway lines in Manhattan are below ground.

After a forty-five minute subway ride that started at a station in another Borough miles away, you never know for certain what you will find as you ascend out of a Manhattan subway station. More than once I have entered the subway when the sun was shining and the sky was blue only to exit into a rain or snow storm, or vice versa. I have walked down into the subterranean world in daylight and exited an hour later into night.

Since radio reception is nil in the subterranean world of the subway, a radio dead zone, all contact with the outside world is lost while commuting. I remember entering the “L” line at the Halsey Street Station one day to the news that a commercial airliner had crashed in the Hudson, only to emerge an hour later to the news that all the passengers appeared to be safe and were being rescued.

Like Plato scrambling out of the cave of ignorance, leaving the shadowy subterranean world of the subway behind to once again walk in a world illuminated by sunshine and neon can be an enlightening experience. If the underground subway in anyway resembles a tomb and a subway ride akin at all to crossing the river Styx, then each and every exit from the system is a resurrection.

Friday, March 26, 2010

What Happened To Spring?

After daytime highs in the low70’s and nighttime lows in the 40’s and 50’s, the weather has turned cold again. Today’s high in New York City was 44°F. Tonight’s low is predicted to drop down to 27°F. Brrrrr!

It was so cold this morning when I walked Myrrhlyn that I had to go to wear a heavy jacket, the first time I have had to do so in over a week. Along with my heavy jacket I also wore gloves this morning, so obviously shorts were not part of the attire.

After posting photos of spring crocus the previous two Fridays I thought I might chronicle these spring flowers over the next several weeks. When I went outside to photograph them on Wednesday, however, I discovered that because of the wind an cold that they had already started to wither and die. The crocuses were croaking! I did not know these little heralds of spring were so fragile and short lived.

This could very well be the last photo of living and dying crocus that I crop for posting to Summit to Shore. The next time I go out to photograph them, they might be a clump of dead blossoms and stems.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Over the Line: Tea Bags or ? Bags

I am appalled by the behavior of some members of the Tea Party who assembled outside the Capitol Sunday to protest against the then pending health care legislation. By shouting racial and homophobic epithets at Representatives John Lewis and Barney Frank as the two passed before them, and spitting on at least one racial ethnic member of congress as he walked by them, these so-called tea baggers crossed over the line of public decency and displayed their true identity—persons “with a variety of negative qualities, specifically arrogance and engaging in obnoxious and/or irritating actions without malicious intent.” At least I hope it was not malicious.

While there is no direct correlation between the Tea Party and the Republican Party, the two parties certainly have seemed at times to walk hand in hand. Now that the Tea Party has stepped over the line from accepted public political discourse into territory resembling disrespectful anarchy and mob rule, it is time that Republican Party leaders publicly denounce their behavior and distance themselves from their racism and homophobia, which is exactly what the British Guardian has called for. At least the Brits are not afraid to speak truth to power.

Now that health care legislation has passed and been signed into law, as many as ten Democratic Members of Congress have received death threats. The behavior of some is now, without a doubt, malicious. While the these threats have not been linked to the members of the Tea Party, there is little doubt that some irresponsible rhetoric by a few members of the Tea Party and Republican Party has served to inflame such behavior. But have Republican or Tea Party leaders yet publicly condemned such behavior?
To his credit, Republican John Boehner went on Fox to criticize such behavior. But what about Sarah Palin, Michael Steele, and other Republican leaders? Do they not know that with leadership comes responsibility?

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

The Best Shorts Ever

Now that daytime highs are remaining between 50-70°F I have been enjoying wearing my favorite apparel, shorts, but not any shorts, Patagonia brand Stand Up Shorts (the ones with the 5” inseam, not the 7” inseam), in my opinion the best shorts ever. A well worn pair, several years old, appears in the photo to the right.

Patagonia claims that their Stand Up Shorts have “been around for 30-plus years” and I believe them. I purchased and starting wearing Patagonia Stand Up Shorts in the late 70’s, perhaps as early as 1976 or 1977, usually owning three or four pair in various colors at any one time. I have since worn them rock climbing, backpacking, day hiking and as general casual wear. I usually retire them long before they wear out only because they have acquired unsightly stains I have not been able to remove. A few pair, however, have bitten the dust through wear and tear, but only after years of use and abuse, usually fraying at the bottom hem or just below the front pocket in the leg crease. On average, a pair of stand up shorts probably stand up to my abuse and use from three to five years, maybe longer.
Few products, certainly few items of apparel, remain on the market as long as these shorts have been available. I think of them as the Volkswagen Beetle of apparel: basic, no frills, well designed, offering good value for the money, and built to last. And I should know what I am talking about as I used to own and drive two used 1972 Super Beetles, driving them well into the late 80’s. I hope that unlike the VW Beetle, Patagonia brand Stand Up Shorts will be around another 30-plus years.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Why We Go to the Summit and to the Shore (and to the Sky and to the Cave)

I just finished reading John Muir’s The Mountains of California. While there were several passages that stirred my soul and re-ignited my desire to return to the mountains, overall the book did not live up to my expectations. Nevertheless, a paragraph in the penultimate essay, “In the Sierra Foot-Hills,” offers an argument for our setting aside and protecting wilderness areas and why we visit them, and prompted me to pen the following reflection. But first the passage:

"Fresh beauty opens one’s eyes wherever it is really seen, but the very abundance and completeness of the common beauty that besets our steps prevents its being absorbed and appreciated. It is a good thing, therefore, to make short excursions now and then to the bottom of the sea among dulse and coral, or up among the clouds on mountains-tops, or in balloons, or even to creep like worms into dark holes and caverns underground, not only to learn something of what is going on in those out-of-the-way places, but to see better what the sun sees on our return to the common every-day beauty."
Unless you experience Central Park or one of New York City’s other parks, you might think there is not much fresh beauty in New York City. Yes, New York City has its share of urban decay and blight, but there is still common every-day beauty to be seen in places other than the obvious, from tree lined streets, both residential and commercial, to wildflowers growing in window boxes.

An ordinary lone evergreen growing in a yard in Queens takes on symbolic significance once you have seen the giant sequoias of Muir Woods. Skates and mussels in Jamaica Bay look more beautiful once you have snorkeled amongst the coral and tropical fish of the Caribbean. Even calcium deposits dripping from underneath bridges and in the subway appear more sublime after you have seen stalactites in Mammoth Cave.

We normally think of large wilderness preserves as a place for urban dwellers to retreat to, to find fresh air for the lungs and solace for the soul. Wild places, once visited, can also transform how we look at the urban environment and help urban dwellers to appreciate even a common orange pansy growing in a front stoop flowerpot (photo right).

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. A day spent in the wild can help us refocus our gaze and see our urban landscape in a fresh perspective.

Friday, March 19, 2010

More Sure Signs of Spring

Last friday I noted that welcome signs of spring were becoming evident here in New York City. The crocus I photographed and wrote about last week have bloomed (photo right) and the mercury topped out yesterday above 70 degrees Fahrenheit. Today promises to be a repeat of yesterday, with a mild breeze, clear blue skies, and lots and lots of sunshine.

Another sure sign of spring closer to home is the fact that today I opened the window in the room where I am working, allowing the fresh spring air (and street noise) to replace the stale winter air (and relative quiet) that has been in the house since late fall. I will undoubtedly close the window this evening after dark when the temperature drops, but for now the open window is a welcome environmental change.

A more personal sure sign of spring is that today I am wearing shorts. Regardless of the weather I try to wear shorts at least one day in March, and this is the first day I have worn them since fall. With the temperature pushing 70, it has been a joy to wear them today, along with a short sleeved shirt and a pair of Birkenstocks. The shorts will most likely reappear tomorrow.

I think summer is not far away?

Monday, March 15, 2010

Healthy Congregations and Family Systems

Last Friday and Saturday I attended a ten hour Healthy Congregations Workshop sponsored by The Presbytery of New York City and led by Richard Blackburn (photo top right) of the Lombard Mennonite Peace Center.

My first serious introduction to Family Systems Theory was in 2002 when I attended Healthy Congregations Facilitator’s Training with Peter Steinke at the Montreat Conference Center in North Carolina. It was an eye opening and thought provoking week as I was exposed to systems thinking for the first time in my professional ministry.
A few years later, in 2005, I attended a Mediation Skills Training Institute led by Richard and the Lombard Center. Richard’s work incorporates a lot of the Family Systems Theory pioneered by Murray Bowen and popularized by Edwin H. Friedman, author of Generation to Generation: Family Process in Church and Synagogue and Peter Steinke, author of Healthy Congregations: A Systems Approach. Two years ago I was invited to be one of four or five trained mediators to assist Richard when he presented the same institute in New York City on behalf of New York City Presbytery and Hudson River Presbytery.
Thus, when I attended the Healthy Congregations Workshop last Friday and Saturday it was more of a review even though, technically speaking, it was the first actual Healthy Congregations Workshop I have ever attended. It was also the first time I have been part of a Healthy Congregations Workshop that is designed to be part of a regional governing body Mediation Process rather than a standalone workshop or a workshop designed to be part of a congregation’s Mediation Process.
Some of the work we did during the workshop was to list, compare and discuss the characteristics of anxious congregations and responsible congregations (photo second from top). Some of us were also internally listing and comparing the characteristics of anxious and unhealthy regional governing bodies and responsible, healthy regional governing bodies.
One idea I had been ruminating on that I asked Richard about was the idea that anxious and unhealthy congregations, as they send representatives to and bring their problems to otherwise healthy governing bodies, can transmit their anxiety and bring their unhealthy behaviors to the governing body and thereby potentially make the governing body less healthy. On the other hand, if representatives from otherwise healthy and responsible congregations are participating in the life of an unhealthy governing body, they can transmit anxiety into that otherwise healthy congregation and even introduce unhealthy behaviors, potentially making that healthy congregation less healthy.
It would seem that healthy congregations have a stake in insuring that their regional governing bodies are healthy, and that healthy regional governing bodies have a stake in insuring that their constituent congregations are healthy. And heaven help the unhealthy regional governing body constituted of mainly unhealthy congregations, or the unhealthy congregation without a healthy regional governing body to go to for help.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Commercial Iconography - Holy Shift

Last Friday and Saturday my wife and I spent more time than usual riding the New York City subway, making two round trips between the Halsey Street station on the “L” line and the 155th Street Station on the “A” line. During our commutes it seemed like every station we passed through had one or more wall advertisements promoting the Showtime Series Nurse Jackie, starring Edie Falco (photo top right).

The advertisement first caught my attention when I noticed the phrase “Holy shift”, an obvious allusion to a more profane sentiment. After a more focused study I realized that syringes and prescription bottles arranged around Nurse Jackie’s head formed an obvious halo and that her right hand formed the traditional gesture of blessing. Holy shift, indeed. The advertisement suggested that Nurse Jackie was a saint and that if you watched the show you would be blessed.

In the advertizing capitol of the world, where sex is used to sell nearly everything, but where a Calvin Klein billboard depicting four nearly naked young nymphs wearing nothing but CK jeans, three of them apparently engaged in Ménage à trois while a fourth reclines on the floor (photo bottom right), offended even some New Yorkers, it was refreshing to see an advertisement employing religious symbolism and appealing to faith and spirituality in an attempt to promote a cable sitcom.

“Holy shift” certainly is an eye catching, but not particularly religious, phrase. It might catch the attention of secular New Yorkers and invite them to smile or even chuckle at the wordplay, but a nimbus? A hand gesture indicating liturgical blessing? How many New Yorkers and visitors to the Big Apple, perhaps not necessarily familiar with classic western art, would miss or not understand the significance of the aureole? How many non-Christian or secularists who have never been exposed to Christian Iconography would fail to recognize and understand the symbolism of the right hand with the last and ring finger against the palm and the two other fingers and thumb raised? Or are these archetypal symbols tapping into the collective unconscious and speaking across cultures as well as religions?

While some Christians might be offended by the Nurse Jackie ads, I find them refreshing as well as provocative, but provocative in different way than sparsely clad young nymphs making out while wearing nothing but their name brand jeans. When religious symbolism and Christian Iconography is employed by a marketing firm to communicate a commercial message in a secular culture, how much more so can they be used to communicate the Gospel?

Friday, March 12, 2010

Welcome Signs of Spring

This has been my third winter in New York City and by far it has been the harshest. It has been colder and with more snow, so I have anxiously been waiting, in spite of any ground hog’s prognostication about winter’s lingering, for warmer spring like weather. The lengthening days, with the sun rising around six, and the warmer temperatures, topping out at 60 in Central Park a few days ago, have been teasing me, alerting my senses that spring cannot be far away.

My spirit was lifted this past Wednesday when, even as nearby piles of snow were still melting away, for the first time this season I spotted crocus making their way through the damp, loose soil, as if these little flowering signs of spring were preparing to fend off any last onslaught of winter. They were making their proclamation in the front lawn of North Church Queens, along 154th street, north of Flushing and south of Whitestone. I could not have preached a better sermon from the church's pulpit about new life and resurrection than they.

Demeter must finally be in a better mood. I know that I am now that my very own eyes have seen these heralds of spring.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Liturgy and Mysticism in Manhattan

Last evening I celebrated the creative spirit at one of New York City’s high altars to Euterpe, Andrew Carnegie’s Temple, more commonly known as Carnegie Hall. The sanctuary was the Isaac Stern Auditorium/Ronald O. Perelman Stage. The 200 liturgists were the Oratorio Society of New York, Kent Tritle, Music Director. Andrew Carnegie, the Society’s president for thirty years, built the hall in recognition of the society’s need for a suitable creative home and it has performed there ever since, except for 1960.

The first offering in the evening’s program, Directed by Tritle, a forty minute meditation, was Cherubini's Requiem in C minor. This was one of the liveliest and most upbeat Requiems I have ever heard. A few minutes into the performance the chorus exploded with so much force that it could have raised the dead. Throughout it and the rest of the evening the Orchestra of the Society supported the chorus without ever overpowering it, allowing the vocals to dominate.

After a twenty-five minute intermission we were treated with two more offerings. Britten’s Te Deum in C was a delightful eight minute piece directed by David Rosenmeyer. Soprano Lauren Jelencovich’s performance was superb but most of all I appreciated her vocals when the sopranos of the chorus sang in unison with her.

Vaughan Williams’ Five mystical songs, with text drawn from four poems by the metaphysical poet, humanist, and priest George Herbert, with Baritone Tyler Duncan, mystified the audience for twenty minutes, as Tritle again directed, as usual sans baton.

This is my wife’s (photo top right, posing in front of the evening’s performance poster) second season with the Society (photo botom left, after their performance) and the fourth time on the Perelman Stage as a one of its members.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Iona and the Book of Kells (Musically Speaking)

While writing yesterday’s post about the Irish animated feature film The Secret of Kells (which did not win the Academy Award for best animated feature film, which went to Up), I remembered that about twenty years ago, soon after their forming and the 1990 release of their self-titled first CD, I learned about a progressive Christian rock band from Scotland called “Iona”. This Scottish group should not be confused with a Celtic band by the same name that plays around the mid-Atlantic states.

Iona's second CD, released in 1992, was titled The Book of Kells, a musical tour de force that that not only captures the artistic themes of the 1,200 year old illuminated manuscript by the same name but also some of the theological flavor of Celtic Christianity. Eighteen years later I still listen to it, listening to it as I wrote this post.

If you like listening to Celtic music, especially by musicians such as Enya and Clannad, I am almost certain you will like Iona. They will soon be touring the US and I hope they will appear in New York City.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

The Secret of Kells

Last Friday evening my wife and I went to the IFC Film Center in Manhattan to see the Irish animated feature film The Secret of Kells, not because we are big fans of animation but because we are devotees of Celtic Christianity and admirers of the Book of Kells, a 1,200 year old Illuminated Latin Manuscript containing the four Gospels and other texts. Having travelled to Ireland twice, we have been to Kells and also saw the Book of Kells exhibition at Trinity College in Dublin. We have also twice been to Iona, where the Book of Kells is thought to have originated. Thus, we went to see The Secret of Kells with high hopes and great expectations. We were not disappointed.

This film is great. It is fantastic! The broad outline of the story was more or less as we remembered it and the animation, while low tech, was detailed, reflecting the art and spirit of the Book of Kells. We especially liked the animation near the end when parts of the Book of Kells came alive through the animation. The music was also authentically Irish.
Anyone with a drop of Irish blood, an interest in Celtic Christianity, an appreciation of the Book of Kells, or fan of classic animation should find this Irish animnated feature film entertaining, informative, inspirational and a visual treat. Click on the first hot link above for the movie’s web site and delight.

Friday, March 5, 2010

After the Health Care Summit – Universal Basic Health Care

The other day I heard a radio commentator on National Public Radio categorize the Democrat position on health care as viewing health care as a right and the Republicans position as viewing health care as a responsibility. I wonder, must it be either or?

The Declaration of Independence establishes that as a nation “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” While we might have an unalienable right to life, we know that we will not and cannot live forever. Each and every one of us will someday die. Until the day of our death arrives, however, our life ought to be one that is generally free and potentially happy. A life without universal access to basic health care will most likely not be a happy life and illness can place numerous limits upon our individual liberty and freedom.

The Preamble of the constitution states “We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.” Does not universal access to basic health care help insure domestic Tranquilty and one way we as a nation can provide for the common defence and general welfare of ourselves and Posterity?

When only the highly compensated and the wealthy can afford basic health care while the underemployed and those working at near minimum wage cannot afford access to basic health care, our nation is ripe for revolution. Thus universal access to basic health care helps to insure our domestic Tranquility.

There are enemies of the United States other than foreign armies. A pandemic could easily kill more Americans than a military invader. Cancer, heart disease and other illness have, in the past few decades, killed more Americans than any terrorist or foreign conflict. Should we not be investing, as a nation, in defending against enemies such as germs, viruses, and preventable diseases?

When a large segment of our population often has to live and work in pain and discomfort because they do not have access to affordable basic health care, we as a nation have not failed to provide for the general welfare but have burdened and crippled our economy. When productivity is affected by workers unable to work because of preventable or treatable illness and diseases we as a nation suffer. If you currently have access to basic health care you may not be too concerned about whether or not others have such access until you need a plumber, electrician, auto mechanic, or other service provider who is unavailable because an easily treatable illness when untreated due to their lack of access to basic health care.

Universal basic health care—that is immunizations, treatment for common accidents and illness, checkups, preventative dental care, corrective lenses—ought to be the right of every American. It makes economic sense. It is part of the social contract that is reflected in the foundational documents of our nation. On the other hand, there is a limit. Not all health care is “basic”.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

37-74% Australian Shepherd

The waiting is over. Yesterday I received my DNA Breed Identification from Bio Pet Vet Lab. I still do not know anything about the identity of my Daddy or Mommy but according to Bio Vet Pet Lab’s analysis of my DNA, I am 37-74 % Australian Shepherd, 20-36 % Boston Terrier, 20-36% Brittany, and 10-19% Bull Terrier. Who Knew? Apparently, through a strange quirk of genetics, I only look like a Chocolate Lab.

We (that is my human companions and I) think that my diverse genetic ancestry is very appropriate for a Dog living in the New York City Borough of Queens. After all, Queens is one of the most, if not the most ethnically diverse community on earth and where people as well as dogs from various genetic backgrounds are perhaps mixing DNA as never before.

In case you are wondering what the Bio Pet Vet Lab DNA Breed Identification test kit looks like, there is a picture of the packaging and the contents at the upper right. As advertized, it took about three weeks from the date we mailed off the cheek swabs until we received the results.

By the way, the Australian Shepherd, according to the American Kennel Club, developed in the Pyrenees Mountains somewhere between Spain and France. Again, according to AKC, The Brittany was named for the French province where it originated. There is a great deal of resemblance between the Brittany and Welsh Springer Spaniel, which leads many people to believe that the two breeds share the same ancestors. It is possible that native Brittany spaniels mated with English pointing dogs around 1900. That means I do indeed have some deep Celtic roots and so my name is still appropriate.

Monday, March 1, 2010

About the March 2010 Header Photo

Every month on Summit to Shore I feature a different original photo for the header. For odd numbered months I feature a “shore” shot and for even numbered months I feature a “summit” shot. This month’s photo of Atlantic City, NJ at sunset was taken with my Verizon HTC Imagio phone. While its focus time is slower than my Sealife ECOshot digital camera, it takes better photos under low light conditions.

The Photo was taken in January 2010 from the second floor observation deck of The Pier Shops at Caesars, looking south back toward Atalntic City. I balanced my phone on a flat wooden railing in order to minimize vibrations and was very satisfied with some of the shots.