A Memorial for Haiti (One Year Later)

I was humbled and honored one year ago today to be asked by the Haitian Students Association (HSA) at the University at Albany to speak at their Memorial Service tonight for victims of the January 12th earthquake. The organization that I head (University Auxiliary Services at Albany) supported HSA and the entire UAlbany community’s response to this humanitarian crisis by matching gifts to the UAlbany Haiti Relief Fund up to $40,000. On the one-year anniversary of this moving event, I provide the text of my remarks below:

I want to speak with you briefly tonight about giving and about stories.

I’ve spent many years in the nonprofit sector, and know that fundraising is an art, a science, and a business. It’s hard work. The people who do it well know how to identify a need, craft a compelling story about that need, broadcast that story widely, find those potential donors whose personal interests resonate with that story, and then convince them to act on that resonance by making a donation to help meet the need.

It takes a lot of planning. It can take a long time. And the success rate can be very low, as people are bombarded from all sides with competing, worthy stories that often cancel each other out.

Sometimes, though, stories about need are so compelling that they tell themselves. The Haitian Earthquake of January 2010 is such a story.

I imagine most of us here sat riveted by televisions or computers as the earliest words and pictures began to leak out of a shattered nation in the hours after the earthquake. The sights and sounds we were exposed to, even from 1700 miles away, didn’t require anybody to craft a story and tell it to us.  We got it. We understood.

I know for some here, the most tragic sound they heard in the days after the Earthquake was silence, as they waited for calls or e-mails confirming the health and safety of loved ones in Haiti. I also know for some here, those calls still haven’t come, and they never will.

President Woodrow Wilson said nearly a century ago that “There is no cause half so sacred as the cause of a people, and there is no idea so uplifting as the idea of the service of humanity.”

What was most remarkable to me in the days after the earthquake was watching the UAlbany community, including many of you in the room tonight, take up the cause of the Haitian people, rallying together around this idea of service of humanity.

Even as you grieved for lives lost, you began working to help the survivors look to the future.

Even as you wept at Haiti’s despair, you began working to provide hope.

Even as buildings tumbled and rubble was hauled away, you began working to help Haiti rebuild.

I’m very proud to be a UAlbany alumnus, and honored to work for you at UAS, but never have I been prouder of this University’s students, faculty, administration, alumni and staff as I have been while watching the response to the Haitian crisis over the past two weeks.

You, the University, are UAS’s only customer, and our sole mission is to improve the quality of life that you experience here. And I believe strongly that by supporting the UAlbany Haiti Relief Fund, UAS does improve the quality of life of each and every person associated with this campus. We are all better people for giving our time, treasures, and talents, whatever they may be, to provide such service to humanity.

If the world is truly to be within our reach, then we must willingly assume an obligation of responsibility and a duty of care for that world and its people. So the story I want to craft, and that I want everyone to hear, is the story of how the University at Albany accepted that responsibility and duty without pause or compromise.

The world is a better place in your hands tonight, Albany.

Who Are the Jets’ Fans, Really?

New York’s Capital Region has long been a cultural, transportation and economic crossroads, and this historic centrality of place is reflected in the sports allegiances you find up here. We’re right on the border of the Yankee/Red Sox divide, for example, with some spunky local Mets fans adding their own distinct spice to the sporting mix. (I believe that flavor is called “futility”).  You can also generally find a decent number of Patriots, Giants, Jets and Bills fans in any collection of semi-serious football followers hereabouts. (Well, the Bills fans might shuffle their feet awkwardly and avoid your eyes when you ask, but they are out there).

Marcia and I were making football watching plans today when she asked me an interesting philosophical question: Just who are the Jets’ fans, really? (We’re taking serious, longtime fans, not bandwagon jumpers). And what distinguishes them from Giants fans? Are there sociological divides? Economic ones? Educational differences? Is it something inherited from your parents? Or assimilated from childhood friends?

Does geography play a role? When I lived on Long Island in the ’70s, the Jets used to practice at Hofstra, so I considered the Jets to be our local team in Nassau County, along with the Islanders and Nets, who both played at the Nassau Coliseum at the time. Are there a lot of Giants fans in Albany who support them in the same way because they make their summer home at our State University?

So what do you think? What distinguishes Jets fans from Giants fans? And what makes people choose one team over the other, when they represent the same metropolitan region and play in the same stadium, so should be completely interchangeable with each other?

Greatest Opening Lyrical Lines Ever

I was spinning one of my all-time favorite records last night, Dogbowl’s 1992 post-apocalyptic nightmare Flan, and was struck (as I always am) by how perfectly concise and scene-setting the album’s very first lyrical line is, in the context of the music and story that follow:

“Flan awoke to the terrible realization that his room was on fire . . . “

I posted this observation up on the “Xnet2 Too Too Liste” (hit the “huh?” button at that link a few times for a full sense of what this venerable and secretive Interweb cabal is all about), asking the Liste’s members what other albums contained such classic, scene-setting opening lyrics. The very clever folks there came up with some doozies, indeed. And here are some of the other ones that popped into my own head as I pondered the question:

“This is a public service announcement . . . with guitar . . .”
(From The Clash’s Combat Rock)

“In the corner of my eye, I saw you at Rudy’s, you were very high . . .”
(From Steely Dan’s Aja)

“Remember when we were young? You shone like the sun . . .”
(From Pink Floyd’s Wish You Were Here)

So what opening lines would you, Indie Albany readers, consider as all-time greats?

Keep in mind as the sole rule that these have to be first lines of first songs on albums as they’re originally issued, not compilations of earlier material. So while “I read the news today, oh boy . . . ” is one of the greatest song opening lines of all time, it doesn’t qualify here, since “A Day in the Life” is not the first track on Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.

“Here come old flat top, he come grooving up slowly . . . “, on the other hand, would qualify, as those are the first words you hear on Abbey Road.

What else you got?

The Destroyer

I love the psychological and social dualities associated with acts of creation and acts of negation: it’s great to build things, but it’s also incredibly liberating to let them go by destroying them.

One of the better known examples of this is the Buddhist sand mandala, a beautiful work of spiritual art, painstakingly created, colored sand grain by colored sand grain, over days or even weeks . . . and then ritually destroyed, with the mixed grains of sand ultimately tossed into a river, returning them to the amorphous, impermanent state from which we all emerge, and to which we all will (physically) return, regardless of our spiritual beliefs regarding our non-corporeal selves.

I wrote a novel in the late 1990s in which this concept of agonizing creation followed by rapid destruction featured heavily in the plot arc. (The book is way out of print at this point, but you should be able to find copies online, if you’re interested in peeking into the inside of my head, circa 1999-2000. It got good reviews from “real” literary critics when it came out, nicely enough). The fundamental concept of destroying that which we once aspired to build, erect, or create means a lot to me. We become better people, I think, when we have the wisdom to annihilate the things that needlessly tie us, through habit, or nostalgia, or inertia, to yesterday.

Tomorrow is always a more exciting place to be anyway, right?

My love for the destructive process largely explains why in 2010 I shutdown my old personal website, removing nearly 15 years worth of high-traffic generating internet articles and artifacts, some of which had provided me, in their time, with a high degree of web notoriety and/or fame. This also explained the demise of Indie Albany in 2012, which I had established two years earlier as a haven for writers who didn’t want their words to be owned by others, nor co-opted by commercial interests not of their own choosing. It was a good model. And now it is gone.

For what it’s worth, I was a coveted “content provider” in the days when most of you either hadn’t found your way online yet, or were still piddling about in the AOL or CompuServe or MySpace or Times Union kiddie pools. I have long enjoyed the sort of Google-beloved internet presence that lots and lots of folk work hard (and fail) to achieve, in both indie and commercial settings, where, sadly, they often sell their creative souls to unworthy masters in the hopes of attaining some small degree of passing notoriety. (To those who are internet flavors du jour today, I can tell you directly: it’s not going to mean anything to you, ten years from now. So be ready.)

While it was satisfying, on some plane, to know that I’d achieved some degree of internet success, it didn’t change my life in any meaningful way, and it didn’t make my family love me any more than they already did, and it didn’t guarantee me any more cultural permanence than a sand mandala can expect.

Since I didn’t really care about the comments, connections, traffic or attention that my old site brought me anymore, I found myself wondering what was the point, really, of clinging to it? I honestly couldn’t come up an answer to that question, and so I let it all go. Poof. The psychological energy associated with such concerns can now be directed toward other, more productive things. Or toward building a new sand mandala, if that’s what feels good tomorrow.

I like that feeling of release. I’m actually now enjoying having vaporized my online presence as much as I once enjoyed creating it. This website is where my creative heart beats today, though I have no expectation (nor should you) that it will always be so. We’ll ride this wave as long as it carries our weight.

So enjoy it all while you can.

Because you never know when The Destroyer might show up again . . .

Still Wanted: Bass Clarinet

I’ve been listening to loads of Captain Beefheart in the past month, moved to review and re-appreciate his work after his recent death. He was a titanic talent, in both the aural and the visual arts, and his passing has moved me. During a spin through Trout Mask Replica this week, I was reminded of a piece I wrote a few years ago, also inspired by the ways in which Captain Beefheart touches my psyche, at a primal and subconscious level. I reproduce it here, in homage. And later this week, maybe I will be calling a musical instrument rental company in Albany, because perhaps the time is now . . .


When I dream about performing music, it’s rarely a pleasant experience. Generally, my musical dreams are of the variety where I’m suddenly, unexpectedly, inexplicably onstage somewhere, with a huge audience in front of me, holding an instrument that I can’t play, with my solo coming up in three . . . two . . . one . . . . go! If I’m lucky, I wake up at that point. If I’m unlucky, I actually get to experience what it feels like to self-immolate in public, and it isn’t ever a nice feeling.

This precedent made the pleasant musical dream I had a couple of night ago all the more memorable. As in most of my musical dreams, I found myself suddenly, unexpectedly, inexplicably onstage somewhere, this time holding a bass clarinet in my hands. Which is odd, because in the real world, I don’t believe I have ever actually touched a bass clarinet, although I quite like their sound. In the dream, the curtain went up and this big shambolic band in which I found myself started to blow . . . and we ripped the roof of the place, playing some spectacular free jazz where everything just clicked and the whole experience felt just boom bang great.

In the midst of the dream, I wondered how I was able to pull off this stunt, and my dream logic explanation was that my bass clarinet skills came from listening to Captain Beefheart’s Trout Mask Replica so many times over the years, whereon the untrained Captain and his even less-trained cousin Victor Hayden, a.k.a. The Mascara Snake (that’s right), tootled some rightous bass clarinet tones on some titanically scary, complex and atonal numbers. Then (in the dream), I also remembered that John Coltrane’s band featured bass clarinet on some of the improvised numbers on his epic Live in Seattle albums, while contemporary jazz titan Eric Dolphy also played the bass clarinet, and noted that this knowledge, too, clearly gave me the magical bass clarinet powers that I had acquired and deployed over the course of a ripping dream set.

When I woke up the next morning, the dream lingered. And then when I got up, I walked to my home office, got online, and started to look for a used bass clarinet on Ebay. I’m watching a couple of them to see where they price out, and also put a call in to a local music store to get information about rent-to-own programs. I could have one in my non-dreaming hands, one way or the other, in a week or two, if things fall into the spots, price-wise.

I believe in the power of dream, and (to a lesser extent) in my own musical abilities. I can generally produce something of worth from most of the instruments I’ve owned or handled over the years (typically in the string, keyboard, electronic or percussion families), so figure that this was just a way for my subconscious to tell me that it’s time for me to branch out into the woodwind family.

Old dog. New trick. In B flat. That’s right . . .

Implementing Idealism: HIV Testing and Confidentiality in New York State

Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome (AIDS) is a disease of the immune system caused by the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), which renders people vulnerable to life-threatening infections and cancers. In the early 1980s, during the nascent days of the AIDS epidemic, there was significant social stigma and fear associated with AIDS infection, as the disease first manifested itself through outbreaks of rare cancers among young gay men in California and New York. HIV was discovered and identified as the AIDS-causing virus in 1984, and prevention education efforts thereafter have focused on HIV testing as a key tool for enabling individuals to best protect themselves and others from infection or transmission. Given the ongoing social stigma associated with AIDS, however, privacy and confidentiality provisions associated with HIV testing remained paramount, and had to be addressed before testing could become widely useful among populations who were fearful that they could be harmed, persecuted, institutionalized or otherwise discriminated against as a result of a positive HIV test.

New York State enacted a seminal piece of legislation in 1989 as Public Health Law Article 27-F (Pub. Health L. §§ 2780-2787): “HIV Testing and Confidentiality Law.” The initial Article 27-F provisions have been amended since their passage, and were significantly supplemented in 1998 with the passage of New York State Public Health Law Article 21, Title III, (Pub. Health L. §§ 2130-2139): “HIV Reporting and Partner Notification Law,” the provisions of which went into effect in 2000. These laws specifically applied to, and had to be implemented by: physicians and others authorized to order lab tests or make medical diagnoses; persons who receive HIV-related information in the course of providing health or social services; persons who receive HIV-related information pursuant to a release; or health care providers or other medical services plans.

The seemingly simple concepts behind these laws were subject to a great deal of interpretation and ambiguity. While both Article 27-F and Article 21, Title III have been successfully implemented, the machinery required to support their provisions is far more complicated and loophole-ridden than that originally envisioned by the pioneering legal and social activists who first advocated for the confidentiality provisions now embodied in the New York State’s health laws. In the 2007 article connected to the link below, I discuss the challenges, complicating factors, approaches taken in the implementation process, and outcomes associated with applying the noble idealism embodied in Article 27-F in the crucible of the “real world” in which State and nonprofit agencies operate. The article also provided broad lessons learned and strategy recommendations for those tasked with implementing public policy, especially when they will be blazing trails while they do it.

Implementing Idealism: HIV Testing and Confidentiality in New York State