Beyond the Facade

Over the summer the New York Historical Society had an exhibit, now over, on Norman Rockwell, Franklin Roosevelt, and the Four Freedoms.  I think we may be down to one or two freedoms by now, but nevertheless.  One weekend my wife and I went to the exhibition.  She’d just read a biography of Rockwell, and although his Americana is my America, I suppose, his pluck is sometimes unnerving.  You see, an artist has to show emotions on people’s faces and in their gestures.  Long ago I learned that if you show what you’re feeling in real life, people will quickly take advantage of you.  I learned, even as a teen, to be subtle.  If you think you’ve got me figured out, here’s a hint—that subtlety continues even into my writing.  It’s often not what it appears to be.

Some months back I wrote a funny piece on this blog.  Some people who actually know me—or the part that I let be known—thought I was depressed.  Or angry.  Or both.  That’s a side effect of subtlety.  Episcopalians have it down to a science.  At least they used to.  The only place they showed emotion was in high mass, and that, if done right, packs a wallop.  One of my brothers comments that I seldom smile.  I might say too much about myself if I did.  What would you do with that knowledge?  In my earliest experience, you might use it to hurt me.  Walking through Manhattan to the exhibit, I noticed the stone facades.  Some buildings have solemn stonework, almost gothic is aspect.  Behind the windows, however, I can sense emotion left unshown.  It’s not very Rockwell.

I admire Rockwell’s outlook.  Indeed, I might share more of it than I want to reveal.  Rockwell, according to the exhibit, believed in America for all races and all creeds.  Strong women dominate his paintings and illustrations.  Equality was what America used to stand for.  And although I’m reluctant to admit it, when my writing’s most serious an element of humor enters in.  Like a Rockwell painting.  He wished to be taken for a serious artist, but had a difficult time suppressing the irony of life itself.  I get that.  It’s just that if other people see what’s beneath the surface—what goes on behind that stone facade?—they will find a means of extorting it.  Best to be subtle.  Words can mean the opposite of what they say or can be literally true.  The shades between the extremes are endless.

The Distortion of Absence

I’m sure it’s happened to you, too.  After some time away, you return to somewhere familiar.  For some reason this doesn’t seem to apply to places you spend only a little time—for example, the cabin where I tend to go on vacation every year.  Rather, it impacts quotidian spaces, the places you see nearly every day.  Returning after an absence, the place looks strange, as if you’d forgotten what it was really like.  A fairly common example is a college dorm room.  When you return to it after, say, the winter holiday, it looks not quite how you remembered it.  It’s a little smaller or larger than you recalled, or you didn’t remember that the floor tiles were that color.  Within a day or so the feeling disappears and you accept the “new normal.”

The strange, or unfamiliar, is the source of many monsters.  Freud famously phrased the uncanny as “unheimlich,” un-home-like.  It is close to what you expected, but not exactly.  The uncanny valley is that place where things are about right, but slightly off.  It generates a creepy feeling, as if reality is being distorted.  On a business trip to Boston a few years back I visited Boston University School of Theology, a place where I spent over two years in my twenties.  745 Commonwealth Avenue hadn’t been renovated, but I stepped inside and was stunned by how wide the hall was.  In my mind it had become far narrower.  It was downright disturbing, as if I’d walked into somebody else’s past.  It made me wonder—is any of this really real?  Or more frighteningly—is my memory that fragile?

I recently spent a day working in the New York office.  While the office itself seemed the same, the city did not.  Emerging from the Port Authority Bus Terminal I knew exactly where I was.  Or did I?  I’d walked roughly the same route daily for almost five years, and two years before that a similar track.  It was as if the bus had exited the Lincoln Tunnel into an alternate Manhattan.  Unheimlich.  I’ve returned to many places after being away for awhile and this distortion of absence always creeps me out.  Can my memory be that faulty or is all of this an illusion?  The gap between present reality and remembered reality provides crevices into which monsters crawl, waiting.  By the time I reached the block of my office the feeling had gone away.  But somehow, the monsters remained. 

Urban Evolution

They say ten city blocks are a mile. They also say the internet is fast. Putting these two theorems to the text, I’ve logged several foot-miles in Manhattan to find things that aren’t there. I don’t mind the exercise, but apparently the web can’t keep up with Midtown. I’ve been working in Manhattan for going on seven years now. I very seldom leave the office during the day, eating at my desk and trying to give the man his due. Once in a great while there’s something I’m either compelled to see, or that I must find for various reasons. Almost without fail, such lunchtime expeditions lead to frustration. I recently had to visit a business that shall remain nameless (conflict of interests, you see). According to Google Maps it was a mere ten blocks—a mile—from my office. At a brisk pace I could make it there, transact my business, and return to my cube all well within an hour. As I grew close, I got that sinking feeling I recognize now as internet ghosting. Nothing remotely like my goal was at this location.

I walked in and smiled at the man at the security desk. He was even older than me. “Ah, they used to be here,” he said, “but they left a long time ago. Long time ago.” Apologizing in advance, I asked if he had any idea where they might’ve gone. “I heard they moved across from Bryant Park, on 6th Avenue. But I heard they moved from there, too. You might try it, though.” Since this was roughly in the direction of my office from where I was, I decided to swing by. When I worked for Routledge I went by here every day, and I didn’t recall ever seeing this particular business there. Their security guard was equally as friendly. “I’m afraid there’s nothing like that here.” I had to return to work. When I got back to my office and googled their store locator, the website froze. This was truly unobtainable via the internet.

Some times you’ve just got to let your feet do the walking. Things aren’t always where the internet says they will be. I’ve come to realize that New York City is constantly changing. Buildings now stand where mere holes in the ground used to be when I began working here. Commuting in daily all these years is like time-lapse photography of a plant growing. Buildings emerge behind the green plywood walls, and next thing you know what used to be a synagogue is a new retail opportunity. It may not, however, be the business you’re looking for. Before spending your lunch hour walking a mile to get there, you might try calling first.

Easter Monday

This year has been a comedy of liturgical errors. Ash Wednesday fell on Valentines Day and Easter on April Fools. Notwithstanding the clash of sacred and secular, the ironies seem to grow each day. I arise early to write. Even on weekends. Before the time to head out for any religious service, I’m sitting at my keyboard, letting my thoughts have their free-range time before penning them back up again for either being with other people or beginning the long work week. On my way to work, I frequently pass Holy Innocents. A Roman Catholic church on West 37th Street, it stands out among the more commercial ventures on either side. Yesterday, Easter morning, I decided to google it. I’ve always been curious about churches, and I’ve never been inside this one.

Google gave me a map of Midtown Manhattan, along with a statement of when this business would be open. “Easter might affect these hours” it helpfully noted in orange letters. An orange-letter day! Easter might affect these hours. Those who champion Artificial Intelligence may need to come up with a way of having “that talk” with their computers. How could any intelligence unaware of the deep-seated human need for the transcendent understand the difference between a church and a business? (Okay, I can hear the more cynical saying there is no difference, but you know what I mean!) How would any algorithm know that Easter is the holiest day of the Christian year and that, at least for some churches, yes, they will be open for business?

Some parishes, we must explain in 0s and 1s, begin this service at midnight on the cusp between the last and first days of the week. Others will gather sleepy-eyed parishioners on top of a hill, out in nature, to watch the sun rise. Still others will eschew any holiday and treat it like any other Sunday. The reasons for these stances are nuanced and not easily understood even by human beings. Our robot overlords, let us hope, are programmed to understand this peculiarity of our species. We relish the thought of Easter, at least in this hemisphere, as telling us that winter is indeed over. Although snow may still settle on the crocuses, it will not last. Days are longer than nights now, as they must, of a mathematical certainty, be after the Vernal Equinox. We are entering the light phase of the year. So much hope and anticipation are wrapped up in this brightly colored, pastel holiday that we have trouble explaining it rationally. Today, of course, everything is open for business today. Except a few churches, as Google may fail to let you know.

The Grind

I’m headed back to New York City after a staycation of almost two weeks. Even shifting standard arising time back only an hour from 4:00 a.m. seems cruel and unusual punishment this morning. New York is a very different place to go for work than it is for play. Serious New Yorkers, of which I am not one, tend to avoid the fun places visitors go. Times Square is simply a venue from which the hike to work begins. Most of the buildings are gray and dedicated to the making of money. My thoughts go back to my one transgressive trip in over the holidays to see a show. How different New York was then! Ethereal lights, sublime music, and the magic of story. Today it will be unsmiling crowds surly to make cash flow again. The concrete underfoot today will be much harder.

When I come in with family I feel less cold. New York can be very lonely for such a crowded place. Indeed, it isn’t unusual for me to go for days with no one at the office saying a single word to me. That’s the kind of place Manhattan is. Too many humans to be humane. Unless you’re here to play. Such play is, however, costly. Magic never comes for free. The holiday lights will still be up here and there. Warm memories of the past few days will linger for a little while. Soon the steel and cement will be the only realities once again. Soft skills meet the cold razor of cash with predictable results.

It seems to me that I’m yearning for boyhood once again. Those first tentative years of learning about life are all misleading. Suddenly it dawns on you that good will is reserved for the holidays and the remainder of the year is dedicated to money and things others deem as important. The bus is approaching, but the last time I was in the city was for fun. Today I won’t even glance at the theater district as I dodge cars to get out of Times Square as quickly as possible. There will be the all-too-familiar lines at the Port Authority during rush hour this afternoon. I’ll leave work wondering how a city can possibly be so schizophrenic. Yes, I’ve been profoundly happy in New York City. I’ve also been ground down to the very nub by the exact same place. Such is the nature of a world where money reigns.

Miracle on 34th Street

It smelled like Christmas. I was out of the office for a rare lunchtime errand, and I had just turned the corner from Madison Avenue onto 34th Street. It hit me like childhood—the scent of pine. I couldn’t believe it as I looked ahead. Wreaths lay piled up on the sidewalk. At least a dozen newly harvested trees were leaning on a makeshift frame along the street. Long disused store windows from B. Altman’s were fully decorated with Christmas scenes. Five minutes later, after my errand, I walked through the scene again. Tourists were snapping photos to paste on Instagram, Snapchat, or Facebook. Clearly the people responsible were getting ready for the holidays extremely early even for money-grubbing New York. Of course, it was all a set for a television shooting. Working in Manhattan is like being on a movie set most of the time.

It isn’t at all unusual to walk through the line of trucks and trailers parked along one of New York’s lesser used cross streets on my way to work. I see set artists working to make a store front look as if a fire had recently broken out there. Famous people lurk inside their trailers until handlers can get them out and away from hoi polloi. We’re all actors here. This isn’t an authentic existence. As I walk through today’s Christmas set, I step past the homeless with their grocery carts full of their worldly possessions. They’re the only ones on this street who aren’t actors.

I’ve been working in Manhattan for six years now. The dizzying extremes of wealth and poverty juxtaposed hard up against one another is disorienting. We would rather live in a fantasy world than help those who are suffering in real time. Yes, there are people who dwell in hells of their own making. I’m not naive. I also know that we create hells for those we don’t like. Those who “underperform” or who don’t value mammon as much as a red-blooded American should. We cast out those who have mental problems and politely ignore them as they rage on the street corner. We do, after all, have to get to work. New York is an experiment in which the virtues and vices of humanity are concentrated and magnified. We then project it onto the silver screen for all to see and covet. But just off the set there are hurting people. They won’t appear on the camera, but they’ll be there after the crew is gone. If we wanted to, amid all these trees and wreaths, we could find a way to help them. We could make this world a better, more authentic place. It’s my Christmas wish that we will.

Science Marches On

A few thoughts about the March for Science in Manhattan over the weekend seem to be in order. To get to the rally in time, from our little corner of New Jersey, we found ourselves on an early train. We arrived at 62nd Street and Central Park West to discover the march was beginning just outside of one of Trump’s unimpressive towers. The area for marchers was clearly marked off by barricades, but a woman walking her dogs, a resident of Trump’s tower, wandered in among the crowd. Like most Trump followers, she seemed clueless that there was an obvious way around the obstacles and had to be helped by the police. Seems to be a theme with 45—police are everywhere watching his assets. Meanwhile the hotel doormen from next door were asking for “Resist” paraphernalia and reminiscing about their shock when the boy next door received the nomination. The mood was jovial despite the spitting rain.

The speeches at the rally were mostly given by children ten and younger. The future teaching the past. As might be expected, the signs were clever, and some took considerable thought to figure out. A few, it seems, felt religion was to blame. Well, they’re probably right about that. One gets the sense that science and religion are like cats and dogs, and nobody has to guess which one’s identified with the cats. Still, the majority of the signs pointed out the benefits of science. Even scholars of religion use the scientific method, believe it or not. Like science, religion (as revealed by science) may be good for people. Who brings religion to a science rally?

I’ve always been a fan of science. Throughout school I learned a lot and did well in physics and chemistry, biology not so much (dissection was never my thing). I still read science and incorporate it into my thinking. Balance, however, suggests perhaps religion also be treated as not evil in and of itself. After all, it is evolved behavior. As the march progressed down Broadway, we passed a church that had a prominent banner reading “Prayer really does work,” or something along those lines. I’d seen enough clever signs already that morning to notice this contrarian voice. Then I wondered, why can’t science and religion seem to get along? Both can (but need not) make exclusive truth claims. What’s wrong with admitting that we just don’t know? Belief is involved in either case. No doubt science is important. I’ve always supported its study and always will. Is it, however, too much to believe that maybe religion can also enlighten, if understood for what it is—a human way of coping with an uncertain world? As science marches on, hopefully it will help us comprehend even the unmeasurable.