Five Songs You Need To Hear (I’m Only Bleeding)

In 2004, I took on a self-imposed project to write and post a poem a day on my website for the entire calendar year. I got it done, but it was a slog. On August 31, 2004, the day’s bit of poesy was called “Twice As Far Behind As Yet To Go,” noting that the year had hit its two-thirds mark, and how it was feeling a bit endless on one plane, but with an end visible ahead on another. With a little editing, it’s a perfectly apt sentiment for August 31, Anno Virum, as well:

It’s summer, yet an illness falls like snow,
atop an ice of hatred hard below.
The dire year drags relentlessly, although
there’s twice as far behind as yet to go.
The joys of friendly discourse are benumbed.
We’re isolated, bludgeoned, stricken dumb.
But as we plot the “to” against the “from:”
there’s twice as far behind as yet to come.
Off in the distance, maybe, we can see
a shoreline from this sea of misery.
Perhaps we can feel hope, to some degree,
with twice as much behind as yet to be.
(The writer sighs on reaching a plateau,
with twice as far behind as yet to go).

If all goes as planned, Marcia and I will wave off 2020 from a new house somewhere in Northern Arizona, knowing that we’ll be in the final three weeks of the worst Presidential term in American history. Please Jesus, Allah, Buddha, Brahma, Flying Spaghetti Monster, [Your Deity Here], let it be so. It’s harder to predict the state of the virus and the festering sores of institutional inequity at that future point, though I suspect that with an anti-scientific, greed-fueled, sexist and racist administration perhaps twitching in its death throes, its purveyors and enablers may purposefully make things worse before they have any possibility of getting better. But again, LORD willing and the creek don’t rise, come the end of January, we will most hopefully be in a place where those who steer our collective colorful caravan are actively interested in seeking a path toward health, justice, social equity, security, safety, stability and charity. We’re desperately in need of a new compass pointing that way.

A stirring soundtrack for that trip wouldn’t hurt either. Which brings me, in a roundabout way, to this installment of my ongoing “Five Songs You Need to Hear” series. Which was motivated primarily because I just nabbed one particular song that you most definitely need to hear, right now: Public Enemy’s 2020 remix of their towering 1989 anthem “Fight the Power,” from Spike Lee’s equally thrilling film Do The Right Thing.  The core riffs, beats and rhymes of the original version of “Fight the Power” are just so iconic all these years on, and I am most pleased that P.E. have returned to this classic with a topical and timely update, involving some of the many talented folk they have inspired over the years.

I vividly remember hearing “Fight the Power” for the first time when Marcia and I saw Do The Right Thing (one of my all-time favorite films) in Washington DC on or very near its release date, and it opened with Rosie Perez dancing and boxing on the big screen with that song just absolutely kicking!!! It remains the only time I can ever recall an audience clapping, standing and whooping for an opening credit segment. (You should watch it now). As provocative and inspirational as the song was in and out of its original context, it’s dismaying to think that it’s been 31 years (“1989, a number . . .”) since Spike released that great film, in which the climactic scenes hinge upon a black man being choked to death by a police officer. I guess I hoped, dreamed, maybe even believed in 1989 that things would have changed by 2020 in ways that such acts would be inconceivable, not commonplace. But nope, we’re not there yet. And we’re maybe not even twice as far behind as yet to go on that front. We’ve got work. Let’s do it. Voting smart would be a great step, for starters.

The other four songs in this month’s installment are also 2020 cuts with topical themes, food for thought, fuel for action. You can click here to get all of the previous “Five Songs” installments (scroll down after you click that link to move past this current article), which are now at 18 posts and counting. Loads of musical wonders and weirdness await intrepid explorers there. Get down to the sound of the funky drummer!

#1. “Fight the Power: Remix 2020 (Feat. Nas, Rapsody, Black Thought, Jahi, YG and Questlove)” by Public Enemy

#2. “Amoral” by Napalm Death

#3. “Asylum Seeker” by Gordon Koang

#4. “a few words for the firing squad (radiation)” by Run The Jewels

#5. “Please Don’t Fuck Up My World” by Sparks

Six More Little Poems

Note: As with the prior “Six Little Poems” post, these pieces were all written in 2004, and are copyright JES. And again, I leave it as an exercise for the reader to determine what themes they might have in common and why I am sharing them today.

I. Lines

We live, like sailors, hauling in our lines:
the strength of many hands makes lighter work.
The older help the younger, many times,
we laud the strong and censure those who shirk.
And as we pull the lines that shape our lives,
we suffer searing shock when someone falls,
recoiling cables cut through flesh like knives,
we feel as though our sails are tugged by squalls.
In time, we right ourselves to stay the course,
we cry for those we’ve lost to give us strength,
which flows out as a primal, inner force,
and lets us pull our lines another length.
Unbroken and determined all the same,
with fewer hands we tug upon our chain.

II. Not As I Say

i.
that misguided amateur effort at
persuasion just points to destruction

ii.
an ethical reverence in practice plots
a path toward peaceful perfection

III. Preacher

His finest virtue is natural and simple:
good faith in the face of the fates set before him.
But deep in their fever of strife and disturbance,
the viciously spirited opt to ignore him.

IV. A Measured Response

i.
“Bang, bang,” he said
and smacked me upside the head.
So I played dead.

ii.
“Kaboom,” I say
and torch his dad’s Chevrolet.
He runs away.

V. Move on the Fields

Fly down, call me, a lost nation is moving.
One fistful of shells sparked a kindling star.
Pains great, pains small, be damned,
and distilled into tepid pale jelly. (Sleep, brother).
Once I am dead, would that I may speak,
and afterward, move on the fields.

VI. Hand Grenade

Careful with that hand grenade, son,
you just might go and hurt someone.
And once you do, it’ll be too late
to apologize and set things straight.
After you toss that hand grenade,
you’ll have to live with the mess you’ve made.
So unless you want to bring vengeance on,
be careful where you throw it, son.

There’s a William Blake painting for everything . . .

 

Six Little Poems

Note: All six of these little poems were written in 2004, and are copyright JES. I leave it as an exercise for the reader as to what themes they have in common and why I share them today.

I. Monster

Despite the spite, I suggest paying attention
to the next set of ravings that fall out of his head.
He’s a mean one, he is, on that there’s no argument,
but he telegraphs his moves through the things that he’s said.
He’s quite predictable in the targets of his new obsessions
and in his pettiness and willingness to carry a grudge
long after a normal person would have just let it wither:
once set on a bad path, he’s a hard one to budge.
But he’s ponderous, not nimble, and easy to outwit
if you do all your homework real well up front.
If you learn what he’s aiming for, by paying attention,
you can easily stay clear when he’s out on the hunt.
He’s a monster, though frankly he lacks the key skill
that he needs to be effective at the point of the kill.

II. Election Day

There’s foreign observers
down at the polling station,
as the hacks and the flacks
champ for confrontation.
I wonder, as I’m voting,
with some consternation:
When did we become
such a mess of a nation?

III. Anesthetized

no data, doesn’t matter
get some facts and force them into
tangled webs of gossamer
and lies
the scientists are vying
with the publicists and naturalists
romanticists and classicists
and spies
the talking heads are talking
as the chopping blocks are chopping
and the commentators comment on it all
home looking, works cooking
we crash the couch and force the spike
into our flaccid arteries
and let the world
fall upon us with a sigh
on flat screen tablets
and in digital surround
on a rising stream of noise we swim
it engulfs us and we drown again
anesthetized
’til tomorrow when
we rise
like Lazarus
to die again

IV. Flood

There you go, let loose the flow
of tainted waters, rising from below,
bitter bile, salty tears, unspoken fears,
all the yes dears, for years and years
rupture the structures, the rocking towers,
like cattle in Babel lowing the hours,
some past, some present, some yet to be,
let loose the torrent, set the flow free,
ride, Sally, ride, on your column of flame
bottled and brokered by merchants of pain,
and the rain, oh the rain, the heavens part,
the waters are rising, drowning your heart
in the cascades and rapids, the swirling pools
of singular servants, wisely suffered fools,
for a moment, a minute, a point in space,
caught in curved surfaces, lost in a place
of floods and mud plains, waves of grain,
Amber alerted by Sally’s complaint
of pressured flow building from below,
so let loose the flow, let it flow, let it flow.

V. Labor, Organized

They cut the timber, we make it into pulp
They bring us pine trees, we grind ’em into pulp
Our machines eat up their logs in one big scary gulp

They work the west seam, we burn their coal for heat
They bring us black coke, we burn it up for heat
Watch ’em coughing up their lungs while drinking in the street

They grow the soy beans, we feed ’em to our pigs
Feed corns and soy beans, we give ’em to our pigs
Come the holidays we’ll have some bacon with our figs

They’re in the garden, with pitchforks in their hands
Pitchforks and torches, and long ropes in their hands
We sit here in darkened rooms and question their demands

VI. Immolation

he’s spun up like a top wound by an old crack-addled dervish
and he’s twitching like a fish, he’s flopping on the deck, he’s nervous
and he’s agitated, too, he’s got an edge just like a cleaver,
something somewhere is broadcasting, and he knows he’s the receiver
of its tension and its anger, though he couldn’t quite explain it,
he’s the bearer of a lit fuel tank with no good way to drain it,
just a spark or just a cinder, and the whole town would be flattened,
leaving nothing in its wake, not even hatches that he’d battened,
though he knew that it was coming, he just couldn’t seem to date it,
and it caught him by surprise the day the deal was consummated

William Blake could see the future. It looked much like the past.

Midwestern Measures

The weather in Iowa can be putrid pretty much any time of the year. We’ve been enduring a particular gnarly stint here in recent weeks, with a gross combo platter of grey skies, rain, wind and humidity. Last night, just as we sat down for dinner, the tornado sirens went off, just to add some spice to the stew of suck. None of this should be surprising should you consult the Köppen Climate Classification System before visiting (or moving to) Iowa, which is classified as having a “Hot Summer Continental Climate.” Here’s the dispassionate description of that:

A hot summer continental climate is a climatic region typified by large seasonal temperature differences, with warm to hot (and often humid) summers and cold (sometimes severely cold) winters. Precipitation is relatively well distributed year-round in many areas with this climate, while others may see a marked reduction in wintry precipitation and even a wintertime drought. Snowfall, regardless of average seasonal totals, occurs in all areas with a humid continental climate and in many such places is more common than rain during the height of winter. In places with sufficient wintertime precipitation, the snow cover is often deep. Most summer rainfall occurs during thunderstorms and a very occasional tropical system. Though humidity levels are often high in locations with humid continental climates, it is important to note that the “humid” designation does not mean that the humidity levels are necessarily high, but that the climate is not dry enough to be classified as semi-arid or arid.

Sounds lovely, huh? If you consult a global Köppen Classification map, you’ll note that Iowa shares its climate with such exciting weather tourist destinations as Kazakhstan, Romania, Russia, Ukraine, Ontario and the cluster of American states in which corn, soybeans and hogs define the economy. Spring Break in Almaty, yo!! Woo Hoo!!

While looking out my window at the deep, deep drear this morning, I was reminded of a series of poems I wrote in 2004 and 2014 called “Midwestern Measures,” describing some of the unique facets and features of life in the Upper Corn Belt. The poems were written in Poulter’s Measure, a popular English Renaissance poetry form that also features heavily in various Christian hymns. I like it as a fun style, akin to double dactyls (I wrote a series called Women of Spam in that form), and limericks (which feature in my obviously titled ode to my homeland, Low Country Limericks). All part of my over-arching love for absurdist observational piffle and tripe.

I wrote the first set of Midwestern Measures during my “Poem A Day For A Year” project, and they were inspired by a visit to Marcia’s home state of Minnesota. The second set came after we moved to Iowa, and were originally published anonymously on my now-defunct Des Mean website. (That link will take you to the set of articles from there that I saw fit to move here when we left Iowa for Chicago in 2015, never imagining that we’d come back; this article will appear at top, but you can scroll down for many older ones). Some of the earlier Minnesota-based Midwestern Measures were later repurposed for Iowa, because despite many radical cultural, political, social and artistic differences between those two states, their geographic proximity does create some similarities, most of them having to do with vile weather.

So in “honor” of the revulsion that my local climate is producing right now, I re-post all of the Midwestern Measures below, opening with some of the weather gems. The Minnesota specific ones are appended at the end of the list. Hope they’re all good for a giggle. God knows we could all use some of those these days.

“Climate Control”

Our winters are quite cold.
The summers? Very hot.
It’s windy almost all the time,
and rainy when it’s not.

“Breezy, With A Chance of Showers”

The wind blows from the west,
and leaves us to the east.
And for as long as we recall
it’s never, ever ceased.

“Where Their Weather Goes”

The wind blows from the west
and crosses the Great Lakes,
which makes the snow in Buffalo
come down in sheets, not flakes.

“The Road Trip”

We drove off to the North.
I-35 was closed.
And somewhere just outside of Ames,
we sadly sat and froze.

“Iowa’s Greatest Lake”

Those Minnesota lakes?
The best I’ve ever seen!
But this Clear Lake, I’m sad to say,
is either ice . . . or green.

“On Landing at DSM”

We flew above the clouds.
We could not see the ground.
We saw some hills as we went up,
then none when we came down.

“Iowa Longevity”

We’re healthy folks ’round here,
a fact the world affirms.
We work hard, sleep lots, and live in
a place too cold for germs.

“Eating in Iowa”

The diet here is great,
our plates are quite the sight:
with corn and pork and milk and bread,
our food is always white.

“Practical Politics”

So we sent Joni Ernst
to D.C.’s hallowed halls,
because she knows her way around
a pair of porky balls.

“The Other Maytag”

I ate the Tenderloin,
I ate the Snickers Pie,
but if you make me eat that cheese,
I think I might just die.

“Know Your Audience”

Bruce Braley thought he’d run
for Old Tom Harkin’s seat.
He made a “stupid farmer” joke,
then harvested defeat.

“Warning Signs”

I will not take my wife
to State Fairs anymore:
I went to go see Butter Cow,
and lost her to Big Boar.

“Side Effects”

I gave up eating meat
per PETA Girl’s requests.
I’m now a soy-fueled PETA Boy,
with unexpected breasts.

“Red Zone”

The Cyclones have the ball,
two seconds on the clock.
A pass, a score, they win the game!
(Twelve people die from shock).

“Trip Time Portal”

No matter where we go,
our GPS display
says driving there and back will take
three hours, either way.

“Gasp!”

The farmer’s wife was shocked
to find her husband’s porn,
from which she learned a brand new way
to eat an ear of corn.

“The Count”

Atop the Show Me State,
beneath 10,000 Lakes,
sits Iowa: The Capitol
of Caucus Count Mistakes.

“Her Scenic View”

We climbed the Loess Hills.
We hiked the Driftless Zone.
But anything between those points,
she makes me walk alone.

BONUS MINNESOTA MEASURES

“Doesn’t Taste Like Chicken”

The sky is bright and blue,
the air is cool and brisk,
but I am flushed and turning green:
I ate the lutefisk.

“All This and IKEA Too”

Progressive to the end,
this state will meet your needs,
and do it with efficiency.
(God Bless the noble Swedes!)

“Land of a Lot of Lakes”

Ten thousand lakes we saw,
and all of them were nice.
Although I think I’d like them more
if they weren’t solid ice.

“Friendly Neighbors”

In Minneapolis,
we’ve really got it all.
And if we don’t, then right next door,
they’ll have it in St. Paul.

“After the Bear”

We saw the Northern Lights,
we saw our clouded breath,
we saw our ripped up tent and then
we slowly froze to death.

“Football Is An Outside Sport”

The Vikings used to play
outside in Bloomington,
but now they play inside a dome.
It’s warm, but not as fun.

The view from my office desk. It’s really that dreadful.

 

Four Mathematicians (Poetically)

I think I’m done archiving old concert reviews for now. While trawling though that old hard drive, though, I did find a few other things that I found amusing, and that have not been up on my public website since the 1990s. One that particularly pleased me was my series of short poems about mathematicians. I don’t know why I wrote them, but I was happy to be reminded of their existence, and share them today. Because nerd.

ONE:
He George Boole
He no foole
He new al-jabre
Nifty toole
Things be yeae
Things be naye
Or and nor nande
All things saye.

TWO:
Fibonacci, in perplection,
Logicked out the Golden Section.

THREE:
Gödel’s Hurdles:
By going out a system seeking proofs,
A bigger system’s spawned with bigger troofs.
(Repeat ad infinitum).

FOUR:
Georg Cantor, never dull,
Starts the count at aleph null.
Now he’s boxed and wormy dirty,
Contemplating aleph thirty.

I think I see a Fibonacci Spiral in his stylish hat.

Tiny Blue Isle

Click Here for an updated 2022 version of this post.

C + CC = 50

The C+CC main entrance, October 2018.

Of my salaried nonprofit jobs since leaving Federal service in 1996, the one I held the longest was the position of Director of the Chapel + Cultural Center at Rensselaer (C+CC), working for the Rensselaer Newman Foundation (RNF) on the campus of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI). (That’s a lot of Rensselaers, more on them later!). For the past two years, I have served on the Board of Trustees of the RNF, so I have had the distinct pleasure of returning to Troy, New York twice a year for Board meetings and for the wonderful Committee of 100 Dinner, where our supporters gather each October (including last weekend) to celebrate the prior year’s accomplishments, and to bestow the prestigious Sun and Balance Award upon a prominent and deserving member of the community.

2018 is a very special year in the C+CC’s history as we celebrate the amazing building’s 50th anniversary. We mark this observance from a unique position of pride, having recently been added to the National Register of Historic Places, the youngest building in the country to currently be so designated. I could wax at length here about how the C+CC is special and deserving of this honor, but I’ll defer to two (more) tightly edited sources on this front — here and here — to put this year’s gathering in context. At bottom summary line, the C+CC has been cited by numerous experts over the years as the quintessential example of how churches in America best responded to the opportunities arising in the aftermath of the Second Vatican Council. It’s a cool place, and cool things happen there, for the campus, for the community, and for the church.

In 2015, I was the keynote speaker at the Committee of 100 Dinner, and I posted my remarks here — The Power of Plus — for posterity’s sake.  Riffing on our stylistic use of the plus sign in the name of the C+CC, I discussed several of the key additive factors that make the facility and its home communities so special to me: it’s a chapel + it’s a cultural center, it marks a place where the sacred + the profane can enter into dialog, it is a home base for town + gown in Troy, its highest annual award is the Sun + Balance medal, and its blended campus and parish community allows old + young to gather together on a nearly daily basis.

This year’s keynote speaker, David Haviland, is a retired RPI administrator, a 40-year trustee of RNF, a great personal friend, and a member of the committee that hired me all those years ago when I first came to the C+CC. He delivered an exceptional talk that was anchored in the hymn “What Is This Place?,” with lyrics published in 1967 (while the C+CC was nearing completion) by Huub Oosterhuis, atop an old Dutch melody called “Komt Nu Met Zang,” originally published in 1626 in a hymnal called Nederlandtsche Gedenck-clanck by Adrianus Valerius. This hymn was sung in the mass immediately preceding the Committee of 100 Dinner, per the liturgical calendar of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.

Dave’s talk explored the ways in which the song’s lyrics tied to the amazing senses of place, word and sacrament embodied by the C+CC for so many who have entered it over the years, while also placing its old Dutch melody in the context of the van Rensselaer family and their history; they were the Patroons of the Manor of Rensselaerswyck, from which RPI takes its name, and from which the modern Capitol Region of New York State emerged with its quirky Dutch-English culture. Dave also touched upon the fascinating life of Huub Oosterhuis, a former Jesuit whose commitments to social justice and equity often put him at odds with the Catholic Church; more on his story here.

At the end of his remarks, Dave turned the lectern over to our fellow Trustee, Nathan Walsh. When I arrived at the C+CC to serve as its Director, Nate was a resident student in Slavin House, the connected rectory that stands as an integral part of the C+CC campus. We spent a lot of time together over the next couple of years, managing the C+CC and all of its operations in a very hands-on fashion together. You cannot direct at the C+CC if you are not also willing to do. At our Trustees’ meeting before the dinner, Board members were asked to approve an expenditure for a new snowblower for the C+CC; Nate and I smirked together about the ancient smoke-belching orange beast we used to push around the property on snow days, which still sits in the Slavin House garage, both of us believing we are entitled to go grab some knobs or bolts from it to carry as sacred relics in its memory.

It has been a delight to see Nate graduate from RPI, enter the working world, get married, have children, and grow into a poised professional in his new home in Baltimore, while still remaining a key leader in the C+CC community; he was actually the Chair of the Nominating Committee that brought me back to Troy as an RNF Trustee. Nate’s job at the Committee of 100 Dinner was to introduce this year’s recipient of the Sun and Balance Award, Father Edward Kacerguis, known to most around the RPI Campus as “Fred” (Fr. + Ed = Fred). Father Ed has been at RPI in one capacity or another since 1989, and he has lived at Slavin House for the lion’s share of that time. Nate drew a great laugh when he noted how hard his job was that evening, introducing a man who needed no introductions, in his own house . . . Sorry, God.

I was deeply touched to see Father Ed receive the Sun and Balance Award. I count him among my dearest friends, and I marvel on a regular basis at the impact he has had on the parish and campus communities around the C+CC through the past three decades. We first met when I was working at a notable independent school in Albany, for which he served as the Roman Catholic Diocese of Albany’s representative. My time there ended awfully, as I was essentially railroaded out for missing a development committee meeting while burying my father. (Yes, seriously . . . insert anecdotes about corporate sociopaths here with regard to my employers at the time). Father Ed helped me land smoothly after that tragedy, introducing me to the C+CC community and shepherding my candidacy through the hiring process. I am a deeply grateful to him for that, among many other things over the years.

At our Trustees’ meeting, Father Ed announced that under canon law, he will be retiring as Pastor of the University Parish of Christ Sun of Justice and Resident Roman Catholic Chaplain at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute as of June 30, 2019. That will mark the end of a profoundly significant era in some ways for the C+CC, though the unique organizational structure of the RNF means that he may still be involved in some other ways in the life of the campus, the parish, and our Foundation. I certainly hope that’s the case, in any event, though we will not know for sure until we work through a variety of strategic planning efforts in early 2019.

Regardless of how all that pans out, this year’s Committee of 100 Dinner was Father Ed’s last in his current roles, so once again, what a profound delight it was to see him honored with long and heart-felt ovations by his parishioners, colleagues, friends, students, alumni and board members. Over the years, I have seen him preside over weddings of students and alumni, baptisms of countless babies, funerals for the elderly and the young alike (the C+CC is a place of sanctuary and respite at times of crisis on the RPI campus, and few crises hurt as much as the death of a student there), more masses than I can count, dinners for all of the varsity sports teams at RPI (his Canadian Thanksgiving Dinners for the hockey team were particularly epic), fundraising activities for charities domestic and international, and any number of cultural, educational, spiritual, or social events at the C+CC and around Troy. He makes a difference, and he does it with a smile.

Those of you who know me best may observe that there’s a lot of references to the Catholic Church above, and that I am not Catholic myself. That’s neither a worry nor an obstacle when it comes to life at the C+CC. One of the most beautiful elements of the space and its University Parish of Christ Sun of Justice is the motto “All Are Welcome.” I stumbled in there at a difficult time in my own life, and I was welcome. Countless others have done the same over the years, and they were welcome. It is the C+CC’s operating policy to keep its doors open for all who care to visit, 365 days a year, and in his remarks, Father Ed shared a story of how he found a young woman who he’d never seen before weeping at the altar one Christmas afternoon; she told him that her life was falling apart in a variety of ways, and that she had driven around the Capital Region for hours looking for an open church where she could pray for solace, and they were all closed to her — except for the C+CC. She was welcome too.

It’s a profound joy to have played a small part in the life of the C+CC over the years, and to have shared in fellowship with so many important people in its history. Beyond Father Ed, Dave Haviland and Nate Walsh (all mentioned above), there are far more names and stories worthy of mention than I can cite in a short article like this, but I will close with two anecdotes about two very special people in the life of this unique community, and the small ways in which my life intersected with each of theirs.

First, Stephen Wiberley: For the better part of two years, I helped Steve write, edit, design and illustrate his autobiography. It was a deeply interesting project, and one that remains of historical value to RPI, the C+CC and the City of Troy. There were a lot of famous folks, mostly scientists, passing through the pages of his life’s story (Fermi, Heisenberg, Van Allen, Kuiper, Teller, Pauling), plus guest appearances by the likes of Bette Davis, astronaut Jack Swigert, NASA deputy administrator George Low and the 1985 NCAA Hockey Champion RPI Engineers. The final manuscript ran to about 320 pages and had about 240 illustrations, photos or figures, all of which I scanned, treated or restored to the best of my abilities, then nested into the book. When Steve dropped off the finished, bound product, we admired it together, with a little bit of wistfulness, since I think on some plane he felt like his life’s work was done with that project completed. I told him at the time that my fee for helping him was that I expected him to give me an update and addenda ten years later, and that he had to do some exciting stuff to make it worth my while. Steve laughed at that and agreed to my terms, but I never got to collect that debt, since he passed away a couple of years later. I wrote a poem about the experience of working with Steve called “They All Shine On,” based largely on how he would often say to me “Oh, I wish you could have met my wife, Betty, she was such a wonderful lady!” as we toiled over the book project together. Father Ed actually read that poem at Steve’s funeral service, which was very moving for me, needless to say.

Second, Father Tom Phelan: Father Tom was the founder of the C+CC and the RNF, and his epic life’s journey and accomplishments cannot readily be distilled into manageable form, though here is a brief summary. He was a vital, vigorous, charismatic man by all accounts, though by the time I arrived at the C+CC, he was in failing health with Parkinson’s, a frail gentleman loved by all, but no longer able to stand as the community’s vibrant central figure. Father Tom’s final illness followed a fall at the C+CC that happened when I was there, and in my role as the facility’s Director, I supported Father Ed in managing all of the countless logistics associated with the visitation and funeral mass that were held onsite after his passing. The line to pay respects to Father Tom wound far around the block all day long on that last day before his burial, which was to be held early on the morning after, in a private family ceremony. At the end of that long day — after all of the visitors had gone their various ways, after our work study students had departed, and after Father Ed had gone home to Slavin House — Father Tom’s mortal remains lay in state in the sanctuary at the C+CC. I was the last person left to turn the lights out and lock the doors on him, on his last night in the profound place he built, through force of will, faith and personality. It was a sublime and sacred moment in my life, as I sat on the step below the C+CC’s altar and reflected for quite some time, alone before Father Tom’s casket, marveling at the amazing differences one man can make in the world around him — and also at the humbling commonality that all of us will face when our mortal times in this world draw to a close, our vibrancy quieted at last, only to live on here in remembrances.

There have been many such remembrances this year as the C+CC celebrates its 50th Anniversary — but there have also been many commitments made to carrying its work forward for another half century or more. The space was built to last, fully adaptable to an ever-changing world, and its governance structure was developed with skill and acuity to also survive and thrive even when and if key partner organizations are no longer able or willing to carry their share of the mission. What a gift it is to have been a part of the C+CC’s history, and to play an ongoing role as a Trustee in its dynamic present and exciting future.

You need to visit this incredible space if you’re ever in Troy, New York. Go there by daylight, any day of the year, and I can guarantee that it will be open to you.

All are welcome. Always.

David Haviland at lectern, Father Ed Kacerguis on the big screen.

Hidden in Suburbia 2011 (Part Six): The Mill

I wrote the following poem, which is titled “The Mill,” on May 4, 2004:

The old mill burned down last night.
You could see the flames from far across town.
It was really quite an awesome sight.
The firemen were helpless, just standing ’round,
while that eyesore burned down.

Built in eighteen ninety four,
they made shirt collars and fancy pressed cuffs there.
It had survived countless floods and storms,
but last night it disappeared into the air,
with not a timber spared.

The mill had been closed for years.
Fashions changed, starched collars became obsolete,
one by one all the jobs disappeared.
By the late ’40s, the shutdown was complete,
and they blocked off Mill Street.

But folks wouldn’t stay away.
It became a place where hoboes crashed and drank,
sometimes dying there, old, spent and gray,
in death, as in life, lying there, foul and rank.
The old mill really stank.

Then, later, the railroad closed.
The boxcars no longer rumbled through with freight,
stranding all of the local hoboes,
who were rounded up and bussed out of state,
without public debate.

Teenagers found the mill next,
swarming toward it like waves of horny bugs.
Teachers and parents alike were vexed
as we went down there to make-out or buy drugs
from unsavory thugs.

Yes, I went down there a lot.
I was there yesterday, as it comes to pass.
Terre had scored some really fine pot.
We held hands and giggled as we smoked her grass,
then doused the mill with gas.

This was a completely fictional character study (of both a building and a boy), but it has gained a new resonance for me, based on this week’s Hidden in Suburbia adventures.

A few nights ago, I set out on Trusty Steed, planning to explore and photograph an area around an active cement plant and its quarry. Unfortunately, before I could even get the camera out, I was spotted by some of the plant’s employees, so I quickly pedaled on, looking for a new adventure, away from prying, police-calling eyes. I decided to ride up to a new housing development that sits mostly atop what used to be one of the better backwoods biking plots in my area, trying to see if I could locate any of the old trail heads behind the development.

With a little bit of poking around, I found a solid trail that dropped steeply down the slope, through the woods, toward the industrial areas I’d photographed a couple of weeks ago in Part Four of this series. It was a good riding trail and I was able to work up a decent amount of speed as I rumbled down the hill. As the slope began to level off, there was a sharp turn to the left, which I successfully navigated . . . only to find myself pretty much smack in the middle of what appeared to be a large, active, multi-person camp in the woods.

The one thing I don’t ever, ever, ever like to find in my suburban woods explorations is other people, since odds are that any other humans (especially adult humans) that I encounter in the woods are not likely to be taking photographs, nor are they likely to want to have their photographs taken. So without missing a stroke, I pedaled through the camp, put some distance between me and whoever was in the vast network of tarp tents in the clearing, and powered down the hill to the point where the trail disgorged into a particularly swampy stretch of abandoned dirt road that I’d ridden and photographed last month.

The reeds in the abandoned road had grown taller than me since I was last there, so there was no way I was riding through them. I shouldered the bike and started pushing my way forward through them, knowing I had maybe 200 yards to advance before the muck and reeds gave way to a paved road in front of an old mill building.

I couldn’t really see much in front of me due to the tall reeds, but I did hear noises from up near the mill, and as I got closer to the pavement, I could see some trucks and other vehicles in the road. Now, normally, I would have turned and gone another direction, but given the choice of surprising whoever was living in the tarps in the woods, or surprising whoever was in the trucks in front of the mill, I decided that the latter group was the safer bet.

When I cleared the reeds, I put my bike down and walked it toward the trucks. When I passed the first truck and had a clear view of the area, two things surprised me: (1) most of the vehicles were Town police and fire vehicles, with policemen and firemen in them, and (2) the mill was gone, with a pile of burnt rubble on a slab where it used to stand.

Oh boy . . . here I was walking a bike, coming out of the woods (likely private property), strolling right into a crime scene (had I come at it from the road over the railroad tracks where people were supposed to be, I’d have seen the yellow tape barrier), looking, no doubt, like a perpetrator returning to admire the scene of his crime, especially since I had photos of this very mill, before the fire, saved on the camera in my backpack!

I decided that confident obliviousness would be the best approach to defusing the situation, so I approached the nearest fireman and asked what had happened, made appropriate clucking and “oh, that’s a shame” noises, then slowly, casually, saddled up and went on my way, as though nothing was wrong. I then rode back home via an odd route involving lots of turns, looking over my shoulder at each intersection to see if the police were following me. Twice, when I looked back, I actually saw patrol cars . . .

So I must admit that I experienced a deep sense of personal relief after a quick Google search revealed that three teenagers had already been arrested for burning the mill to the ground. They used a bottle of gasoline with a rag wick in it. Two responding firefighters were injured as a result of their actions.

Once my sense of relief passed, it was replaced with a feeling of sadness, both for the building, and for the boys who burned it. I suspect they acted with the same degree of unthinking nonchalance and lack of concern for consequences that the protagonist of my poem did. There was probably a girl to impress in the story, somehow. That’s a pretty endemic mental state for adolescent boys, and it’s never a good thing when you inject fire into that hormone-addled mindset.

I wish these boys had shared my adult respect for these old buildings as objects to admire from outside, rather than as things to actively enter, violate, and destroy. Nature will do that eventually, so there’s no need for us to hurry that natural process along. This senseless act of destructive acceleration is going to have life-altering consequences for the perpetrators, though hopefully they’ll learn the lessons they need to learn, be given the chance to make some serious acts of restitution, and be able to move on with their lives.

Likewise, here’s hoping that the injured firefighters recover quickly and fully. Bless them for their work.

Last night, I went back to the mill, this time approaching it via public roadways. The firetrucks were gone, and an amazing amount of progress had been made in clearing away the debris. I got close enough to snap a few photos, then turned to head back out via the only paved access point. As I saddled my bike, though, I felt a heavy rumbling in the ground, and looked up to see a fast-moving freight train approaching me from the south.

When the train reached the at-grade crossing, I was essentially trapped on that short strip of pavement in front of the fallen mill, with the tent-dwelling woods people and a quarter-mile of muck blocking the only other escape route. It was kind of a creepy feeling, since it represented the sort of improbable combination of unrelated factors that script-writers use to build suspense in horror movies. I was glad to wave goodbye to the train and head back up the hill to home once it had passed.

You can see the before and after photos of the mill by clicking here.

To see other Hidden in Suburbia photo essays, click here.