The War in Snyder’s Grocery Store

vitruvian_man-001Jack Fallon died twenty years ago last week. He was an eccentric and endearing character. When the rest of his World War II generation were busy conforming to grey flannel suits, he marched to whatever voices resonated in his head. The guy who wore a lampshade at parties so hilariously you forgave him breaking your lamp.

My father sat cross-legged on the floor, drew us children in a circle, turned off all the lights, pulled a nylon stocking over his head to smother his features, held a flashlight between his thighs and shined the light up his nostrils. Then he told ghost stories. When we were all too scared to possibly sleep, he pulled the nylon loose, raised the lights, and sang his favorite song. The War in Snyder’s Grocery Store. A silly jingle or an anthem against war. I could never decide. Like my father, the song is inscrutable and wonderful.

Thanks, Dad.

The War in Snyder’s Grocery Store

791006 Jack FallonJack Fallon on October 6, 1979.  Born July 18, 1924. Died February 26, 1995

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Rise and Shine – for the 21,897th Time

vitruvian_man-001Last Sunday was my birthday. I turned 60. Everyone who knows me steers clear of me on that day. It’s not that I mind getting old – being 60 suits me as well as Gloria Steinem turning 40. It’s just that I hate celebrating my birthday. As a child, every birthday was a disappointment. As an adult, it became my designated day to wallow in all the shortcomings I tried to brush aside the rest of the year.

This attitude has diminished benefit over time. Then I received a remarkable gift; a greeting card from my sister proclaiming “Rise and Shine’. I howled in laughter when I opened it. The card made me realize that it’s time to bury my birthday morose.

The confluence of calendar and chronology conspired to make my childhood birthday’s regular disappointments. I was the fourth child born within five years. Can you guess I’m Irish? My birthday’s in February, the final event of a holiday season that began with one brother’s birthday in October, my sister in November, mom in December, then Christmas, followed by two early January birthdays that got swept into our exuberant holidays. By mid-winter my mother decided to economize, sat me down, and delivered the annual message, “Your birthday will be a little light this year.” One year, there wasn’t even a cake.

IMG_1408After my psychiatrist asked, twenty years later, when I was going to get angry at my parents for their shortcomings. I chuckled and recalled a particular family ruckus of my parents arguing before their four young children. Other seven year olds might be afraid, but I just shrugged. “They’re nice people, just in over their heads.” No child should be so detached from his family. I never mustered that anger my therapist considered essential to mental health. My parents were clueless, but that’s not a crime.

Regardless what chaos prevailed, every morning my mother barged into our rooms, threw open the shades and screamed ‘Rise and Shine’. Yesterday was done. We were starting over again. Unfortunately, since we never learned anything from yesterday, starting over again usually meant resalting the same wounds.

My sister describes growing up as ‘one long scream’ for, in truth, from “Rise and Shine” to “Did you say your prayers” our mother’s voice betrayed her frustration. The cruelty of time and culture made this lovely person an ill-suited 50’s mom instead of a 90’s career woman. But I took her morning greeting as a directive to ‘get up and get the hell out of here’. Which I did. Except on February 22, when I allowed myself to get dragged back into my stifling childhood.

Woe to the girlfriend, wife, boyfriend, whatever, who tried to celebrate my birthday. I bickered with Lisa through too many birthday dinners, turned Paul Hempel away after he had waiters sing to me, and broke up with Paul Beaulieu before he even got that chance.

I did have three wonderful birthdays. My sister gave me a surprise sixteen party where I got my first record albums – Elton John and Judy Collins’ Wildflowers. At 35 my wife rented a mezzanine booth at The Roxy and took ten of our friends dancing. I turned 50 at my niece’s wedding; my sister had the DJ play the Beatle’s ‘Birthday’ and let me swing her across the dance floor. But three out of fifty is hardly a winning proportion.

imgresI have ‘Rised and Shined’ over 21,000 times since the day I was born, discounting those all-nighters when I didn’t need to rise and probably didn’t shine. I’ve gotten so far away from my childhood I don’t need to give it another thought, let alone waste another birthday wallowing in its pain. I toyed with having a party this year, but that seemed too great a leap. Instead, I spent a satisfying day with my son Andy in Virginia: a fourth memorable birthday. He even surprised me with a cake. God willing, I still have many years left. Who knows, one of those years, I might even manage a party.

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Sean Penn’s Ugly Words

usa-001Of course the Oscars were long. Of course, the presenter’s cue card jokes fell flat. Neil Patrick Harris, so effortlessly charming at the Tony’s, appeared stiff, even in B.V.D.’s and black socks. Still, Lady Gaga made the most of her prime product placement spot by singing better than many thought, even if she’s no Julie Andrews.

I winced when Sean Penn strode on stage to present the Oscar for Best Picture. I should like this guy – Haiti philanthropist and gay-rights champion – but he’s so dour. He proved his Oscar-awkwardness a few years ago in his tone-deaf defense of Jude Law against host Chris Rock’s jabs.

imgres-1But he eclipsed that last night when inserted the phrase, “Who gave this son-of-a-bitch a green card” for millions to hear before announcing Mexican Alejandro González Iñárritu’s name for Birdman as Best Picture. Perhaps in better comic hands it might have seemed a joke. But from too earnest Mr. Penn, it was beyond insensitive. It was wrong.


We are a nation of immigrants. We should be proud that the United States offers Mr. Iñárritu creative opportunities and that chooses to pursue his creativity within our borders.

I hope that Mr. Penn offers Mr. Iñárritu a sincere and public apology today. And I hope the Oscar powers keep Mr. Penn off the presenter’s podium for years to come.

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W.E.B. DuBois Says it Better than Me

haiti-001In Architecture by Moonlight, I struggle to describe my fellow workers. Haitians work ethic is different from ours. I don’t wish to romanticize it, nor imply it’s lesser or greater. Although many find value in my descriptions, the third-world experts at Partners in Health objected that I was politically insensitive; they need to guard against their precious donors. Meanwhile, freewheeling critics in the twittersphere – thirsty for cyber blood and beholden to no one – lifted phrases out of context and stabbed me as a paternalistic neo-liberal. Since I offended, and was offended, from all sides, I figured I was doing a fair balancing act. Still, my descriptions fell short of what I wished to convey.

Fortunately, I camimages-1e upon a W. E. B DuBois’ passage of in The Gift of Black Folk:

“As a tropical product with a sensuous receptivity to the beauty of the world, he is not as easily reduced to be the mechanical draft-horse which the northern European laborer became. He…tended to work as the results pleased him and refused to work or sought to refuse when he did not find the spiritual returns adequate; thus he was easily accused of laziness and driven as a slave when in truth he brought to modern manual labor a renewed valuation of life.”

I am honored to be speaking at Howard University this Monday February 23, 2015. I am particularly glad to have come upon Mr. DuBois description before that event. If there is anywhere in America where the contributions of black labor should be most accurately represented, it is at Howard University.



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Boys, Toys, and Video Games

usa-001I just spent ten days with three boys, aged 8, 7 and 3. Like all children they were cute, surprising, hilarious and exhausting. Their dad, Brad, is an Army Captain deployed overseas; their mother Caitlyn is a deep reservoir of calm patience. (All the names are changed in keeping with Army privacy protocols for deployed soldiers).   I went to ease Caitlyn’s load and give the boys a break from after school programs. If the definition of vacation is to immerse in a different pattern of life, it was the most complete vacation I’ve had in years.

imgresThe older boys, Nathan and Sam, got their own Kindle’s days before I arrived; little Kyle inherited an older model. Caitlyn programmed the devices to approved games for a maximum two hours a day. During our first few days, most adult / child conversations revolved around negotiating allowable games and time limits. Without restraints, the boys would rove their thumbs over tablets from dawn until dark.


imgres-1On Tuesday, Caitlyn announced that tomorrow would be our Kindle-free day. The boys groaned but didn’t revolt. Wednesday was an early release day. During snack they talked about school, mostly the drama of recess. They did homework without complaint, taught me Uno, and we all played Life. Following a round of after-dinner wrestling, they went to bed with less fuss than usual.

But first thing Thursday they clamored for their Kindles once more.

On Saturday morning three-year-old Kyle managed to circumvent his mother’s diligence and downloaded a shooting-based video game. By the time Caitlyn discovered the breach, all three were deliriously shooting up bad guys. The rest of their morning romp was gunplay.

imagesThere are no studies that link toy guns to real life violence, contradictory evidence of the benefits and pitfalls of violent video games, and real evidence that computer games enhance anxiety. I was not privy to any controlled study. I just observed three ordinary boys for a week. I witnessed how they mirror adult responses to the wired word, in a very direct way. When they were fully unplugged, they were most fully alive and connected to each other. Yet whenever available, they craved wired connections. Then they mimicked what their virtual worlds revealed to them.


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I Give Up: A People’s History of the United States

usa-001I tried to read Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States, I really did. I slogged through every word of the first hundred pages, and then skipped the (abundant and repetitive) quotations through page 250 to focus on text only. All that effort got me to the fateful year 1877 with nearly 400 more pages to go. I just couldn’t face another description of history from the loser’s point of view – the women, blacks, Indians, poor farmers, working stiffs and immigrants who are beaten down, time and again, in Mr. Zinn’s narrative.

I agree with Mr. Zinn’s history in principle. But that doesn’t make his one-note harangue against rich white guys a compelling narrative. His penchant for chronological mash-ups led me to suspect he sought events to support his thesis rather than letting the order of events form a thesis. On one page alone, in the chapter leading up to the Civil War, he references the years 1790, 1860, 1800, 1822, 1831, 1859, and 1808, in that order.

imgresHe reports the miserable conditions of the downtrodden in our country with relish, but never once addresses the question that refused to leave my head. Things were terrible here, and still are for the less fortunate in our stratified society, but weren’t things worse elsewhere? He never tries to explain why people came, why they stayed, and why they still come to America. Sure, the streets were never paved with gold, but they still held more opportunity than streets anywhere else on earth.

Two hundred fifty pages of Haward Zinn confirmed, as so many passages of our history do, that Winston Churchill understood us better than we understand ourselves. “You can always count on Americans to do the right thing, after they’ve tried everything else.” Mr. Zinn documents painful, unnecessary paths towards each person’s claim his or her rightful place in this world. But he dismisses the gains, however slowly attained, and omits the global context that made the United States an attractive destination despite its inequities.

imagesWe still have far to go. I am amazed, time and again, at the obstacles our political system erects before the average person. Why do the rich and powerful care to deny their fellow citizens a living wage, equal justice, healthcare, educational opportunity and real economic opportunities? They already have everything they need and more. But I can’t accept a history based on the idea that the 99% have always been chattel and will never be other than that. I still believe that the United States, messy and fragmented as it is, will find its way to greater equality. Even if we don’t get there until after we’ve tried everything else.

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Ten Highlights of Six Hours in Seattle

usa-001I had six hours to tour Seattle between light rail depositing me at Westlake Station and meeting my niece and her three boys for pizza in Capital Hill. The next nine days would be family-focused in a small town an hour from the Emerald City, but for six hours I got to confirm / confound stereotypes on my first visit to the Pacific Northwest. An architect on his own with a good pair of boots and a yellow slicker can see a lot of Seattle in that time.

1. It rains all the time.

images-4Yes, it rained the entire time I was in Seattle. But it’s benevolent rain. It reminded me of Ireland.



2. Seattle is bigger and more affluent than I imagined, but hardly fashion forward.

images-1I walked by Barneys, Brooks Brothers and Tiffany’s but I don’t know who shops there because everyone I saw wore baggy jeans, T-shirts and flannels.





3. What passes for counterculture everywhere else is mainstream here.

il_570xN.666851712_rfqdGuys wear wool ponchos, identical the one I wore as a costume at a Woodstock Party last summer, without a trace of irony.



IMG_1366The Comet Tavern is one of several bars that trumpet being open and accepting with more fanfare than a Unitarian church.




IMG_1360I ate a delicious BLT at a place called Honeyhole. In Boston, that would either be a specialty donut or X-rated video.




4. There’s a Starbucks on every corner.

IMG_1361True for starters. But there’s also a competitor midblock for the folks who can’t stagger a full block without a caffeine fix, like this line outside the Monorail Espresso at 2:00 p.m. on a Thursday afternoon.




images-3And there’s the new Starbucks Reserve Tasting Room, which takes up almost a full block.




imgres-3In between are awesome bakeries, in which I indulged.





5. People are incredibly nice.

images-2When the elderly women next to me on the train from the airport didn’t have the correct fare card, the collector was so gentle and polite. After he scanned her ID against future lapses, he actually called her by name when he handed it back. At least three people told me to have an awesome day – one told me twice. That much awesomeness required more coffee.

6. People are also incredibly thin and pale.

imagesThey look like they drink too much coffee and get too little sun. But how do all those bakeries figure into the gaunt aesthetic?



7. The Seattle Public Library is a quirky bit of contemporary architecture.

imgres-1It’s way more than that. It’s a terrific piece of urban architecture whose gravity defying cantilevers slip into view from blocks away in Seattle’s grid.




explodedviewThe interior organization is intellectually brilliant, which is not the same as being user-friendly.

IMG_1362The building is mobbed, but why is the fifth floor called the Mixing Chamber? It’s the computer floor – every human there is engaged in parallel play.



8. Seattle loves writers and readers.

IMG_1359I was afraid no one would show up for my reading at Elliott Bay Book Company, 3000 miles from home. But I had a solid crowd and over an hour of Q&A.



9. Residents of the Emerald City love the Seahawks even more.

IMG_1365IMG_1364I kept my Boston roots on the low-down. Even the churches were against me.



10. The only thing I wanted for in Seattle was – more time!




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