January

2014

Circumstances compelled me to take a trip to the Marriage License Bureau in Manhattan, down by City Hall. The building is a long tall grey edifice of imposing self-importance on Worth Street. Having grown up on tales of municipal employees in New York City, which were usually tales of horror, I felt momentarily confirmed in my pre-judgment by the imposing building, its stairs, and no immediately available handicap access. I was imagining hours of my time waiting just to put my signature on a single document.

Inside the revolving door, I turned right and stepped through another set of doors. The first object I saw was the reception desk with the stanchions and velvet ropes that indicated long queues. I was not getting married, which gave me permission in my mind to bypass this first step.

I walked past the desk into the large, long hall and simply stopped. The ornate windows two stories high on the right let in streams of bright light to illumine the space. On the other side, the counters for the clerks were like the bank teller’s windows of a bygone era. The marble counters with metal detail on either side of the clerk’s work space were topped with more marble. All of it was encased or framed in old, darkened wood. There were twelve windows for clerks along that long, long bar. The bar was split in half in the middle by the desk for the NYC Chaplain’s reservation desk. The wait was one hour for the chaplain’s wedding service mid-morning on a Monday.

The couples were sitting in chairs along the length of the room. Grooms were adjusting their boutonnieres and brides were pressing their dresses with their hands. Some grooms were in tuxes or suits while others were just in pants. There were a few wedding gowns too. Parents fussed over their grown children and friends laughed and joked as they waited. There was an area for photos and couples patiently waited their turns. Faces displayed happiness and anticipation, nostalgia and expectation.

The scene, in the middle morning of a gritty late autumn day, was magical.

To cap the magic of this special place, three clerks individually guided and helped me meet up with the single piece of paper waiting for me in a stack somewhere in the hall. I smiled; they smiled. They returned to their jobs filling out marriage licenses and I stepped back out into the street, back into the drabness of an ever more cloudy day.

The frustrating beauty of magic is one has to recognize it when the magic is in front of you and one has to appreciate it for the fleeting moment you have it. Aye, there is magic in the world.

 

2013

Everything that we knew about Columbine was wrong. All of the facts and the analysis of the facts in the first years after this high school massacre were wrong. The description of the personalities of the shooters was wrong. The reportage of reactions of people in the building was wrong. The relationships of the shooters within the school community, within their families and within their neighborhoods were reported wrongly. Only ten years after the murderous tragedy did a definitive report emerge that was based on confirmed evidence and peer-reviewed conclusions.

Now we have to confront an even worse murderous rampage, Newtown, Connecticut. Already we have witnessed that most of the facts reported on the first day were incorrect – the wrong shooter, the wrong tally, wrong employment, and a fabricated retelling of the event.

The desire to know the answers is a compelling human endeavor, especially for events that are beyond the pale. Unfortunately, there are no answers and even if evidence provides us with telling clues, those answers will be inadequate. Compelling answers do not exist that explain the slaughter of small children; the answers never existed and they never will.

In the face of such horror, we have two choices: flee or fight. Flee means to recognize our fear that it could happen again and spend our time trying to prevent a tragedy that has already happened. This response is to live in fear of copycat perpetrators. The desire is to run and hide our children away behind impenetrable walls. Nonetheless, with so many high powered guns with high capacity magazines in circulation, responsible people review and confirm their security arrangements that are already in place and have been in place since Columbine, tweaking where necessary. Such a response is common sense, not the desire to flee.

The other response is to fight, the more interesting of human responses. People who choose to fight bring a number of endeavors to the fore. Horrific events do not happen through one single cause. A single cause makes a great narrative but real life is much more complicated. Just as all of our lives are made up of many elements and countless threads of events and experiences, the origin of this mass shooting is thoroughly complicated. To fight back after such a tragedy is to seek out the elements that made such a horrific ending possible and either remove or correct them.

If one element is the easy availability of semi-automatic weapons and high capacity magazines, then so be it. If another element is the severe cuts in mental health maintenance, treatment and wraparound services, then so be it. These are the starting points for a fight that is long overdue.

There is no reason why a six year old child should fear for his or her life within the borders of the United States. As one of the richest and most educated societies ever on the face of the earth, there is no justification for such a moral abyss. Furthermore, there is no excuse that we, the adult custodians of all of these children, are not fighting to create communities safe from the fear of another Newtown.

May God grant consolation to the families of the slain; may they find peace someday. May we be moved to act on their behalf, returning a secured peace to our neighborhoods.

 

2011

 

For April Fools Day this past year, Geeknet released a product for purchase labeled “Canned Unicorn Meat” on their site Thinkgeek.com. The plush toy comes in a Spam inspired canister with a story of what happens to old unicorns. The first notice that the company received was a twelve page, heavily researched “Cease and Desist” order from the National Pork Board for the infringement their trademarked phrase “The other white meat” with the thinkgeek phrase “Unicorn – the new white meat.” Being a mythical product, there is no infringement of trademark but to make apologies to those offended, the site offered a 10% discount on their 15 bacon related products that the site offers including bacon flavored lip balm.

If incredulity and absurdity of the product and worldly response hasn’t surprised you yet, then you must read on for an official government response. Ingomar, a German citizen living in the United States temporarily, ordered the plush toy and brought it home to Germany. Declaring the item at customs, the can was seized by the customs agent for the crime of importing the meat of rare animals. After thirty days, the woman has not been able to reclaim her plush toy, deliciously fictional though it may be.

I cannot make this up.

 

2006

Joan Didion’s memoir “The Year of Magical Thinking” is an interesting read from an author who is regaled as one of better writers still living. The title refers to the year of mourning after her husband died. The writing is still superb; she is able to render sophisticated ideas and convoluted feelings with grace and ease. Ever so rare in my career, Joan Didion has written a book that falls within my experience and expertise, which allows me a more perceptive critique.

Her greatest insight was the magical thinking that pervaded her imagination and ruminations while she mourned. The many ways she deceived herself, the traps she laid for herself, and the painful truths she sought to duck pursued her throughout that period, causing even more pain and grief.

At one point I put down the book and noted how sad it was that this gifted and driven writer is only now realizing how her life is riddled with magical thinking. She is well into her seventies and it took the death of her husband to bring about such a dramatic realization. I am not singling out the author, for I believe all of us pursue our daily lives with threads of magical thinking.

“Things will work out” and “this is for the better” is some of the threads many of us adopt at times during our lives. Bad luck, good luck, and a knack are all tidbits of magical thinking. Sometimes it is easier to believe that something external is working upon us or that something we mystically perform internally makes a difference out there in the world.

I used to play a game in the car with my kids. I declared that I could make the traffic light change at my command. With an eye on the yellow peeking from the overhead traffic light, I would clap as the signal changed: Voila, magical thinking. My children figured it out soon enough as all children do, but once in a while I will dreg up the old joke as a remembrance of their younger, more innocent lives. “You keep thinking that,” my daughter placated me with a patronizing voice as she patted my arm in mock empathy the last time I tried it. She is not gullible anymore.

Magical thinking springs from our desires in blatant and subtle forms; it seems to be a part of our human nature. We can use it to make children laugh or hide ourselves from pain. The rationalists may despise it as weakness but the creative minds crave it as manna from heaven. We read to our children and grandchildren of “The Little Engine That Could” who chugged up the mountain panting “I think I can, I think I can.” We know full well the limits of this magical philosophy until we find ourselves in physical therapy or rehab. As we face the staircase, the weights, or the manipulations of the physical therapist, we all cant “I think I can, I think I can” and mean it. Therein lies the transformative power of magical thinking; it can be constructive or destructive.

New Year’s resolutions are the same ilk of magical thinking. Promises of twenty pounds or the rejection of bad habits are still magic in the making. You can do it; but, you won’t. However, when magical thinking is infused with realistic goals, healthy and worthwhile choices, then you can and you will. Dare to dream and make the magic; just don’t forget where the magic ends and the reality begins.

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