Photo 101, Day 4: Bliss is in the eye of the beholder

Geese resting in an Erie Canal feeder in Central New York last September. Bliss? I took the photo on an early morning run during marathon training. That is bliss to me.

Geese resting in an Erie Canal feeder in Central New York last September. I took the photo on an early-morning run during marathon training. That is bliss to me.

Today’s assignment: Choose an image that represents bliss.

I took this photo last September during an early morning run training for the Columbus Marathon. That’s when I’m happiest — outside in nature, running, in shape and with a goal in sight.

Posted in Irish Investigations, photography, running | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 7 Comments

Photo 101, Day 3: Water, water everywhere (sort of)

Water 1Today’s Photo 101 assignment: use an image of water, and try horizontal as well as vertical perspectives.

This afternoon I spotted this drain spout near the Syracuse University campus. It lent itself to vertical, I’d say.

As another option I considered taking a photo of a plume of steam from a utility building nearby, but the only background was sky, and there wasn’t enough contrast.

Spring can’t come soon enough.

Water 2

Posted in Irish Investigations, photography | Tagged , , , , , , | 9 Comments

WordPress Photo 101, Day 2: Street Scene

WordPress Blogging University

Street Scene for Blogging University, Photo 101.

A not-so-famous actor on his deathbed allegedly said, “Dying is easy. Comedy is hard.”

Well, so is photography.

Today’s assignment reminded me of this. As did yesterday’s. As will tomorrow’s.

Today: Street scene. Think about foreground and background. Maybe try a different vantage point, several stories high.

Trying to get a good photo in a blinding snowstorm is difficult. Today’s street-level shot is missing the crucial element I was after — a bicyclist navigating the snow-covered street near Syracuse University, near the bike route sign. He rounded the corner at the same time as a city bus, and steadied himself by touching the side of the moving bus with his left hand.

How did I see this, but not capture it in a photo? Snow was in my eyes, my hands were freezing, my camera was in a pocket of my winter coat and by the time I retrieved it and turned it on, both cyclist and bus were long gone. I took comfort in the presence of a lowly pedestrian, put him/her in the frame with the bike route sign in the foreground, heaved a heavy sigh. . .

. . . and went indoors to shoot from the comfort of a 12-story window, where I took the photo below. As difficult as writing is, photography is harder. Now I have to go out and shovel my driveway. Again. Welcome to Syracuse.

Street Scene 2, WordPress Blogging University. Twelve stories high.

Street Scene 2, WordPress Blogging University. Twelve stories high.


Posted in Irish Investigations, photography | Tagged , , , , , , | 13 Comments

WordPress Photo 101: How to represent “home”

Wordpress, Photo 101

This image for the Photo 101 WordPress Blogging University represents “home” to me.

The WordPress Photo 101 assignment: take a photograph representing what “home” looks like or means to me.

I’ve chosen an admittedly “busy” photo. Some objects are easily identifiable, some are not.

The piano and mandolin represent the importance of music in my life, and how a home filled with music is often a happy one. The framed print on the wall is a photo taken in Ghana by my girlfriend, a professional photojournalist who cares deeply about the people she photographs. Her compassionate art is important to me and deserves a prominent place in our home.

The unidentifiable — parkas that convert to sleeping bags. These were delivered today, and are going to be given to homeless people in Syracuse, NY. The items were donated by a friend in California. They are made by The Empowerment Plan, a not-for-profit in Detroit that hires homeless women and trains them to be seamstresses.

It’s fitting that they arrived today before this assignment about “home.” I have a modest, comfortable home. Many among us do not. So I included two of these coats/sleeping bags in the photo. My friend sent 10 to me, and another 10 to his daughter in Chicago to distribute there.

Posted in Homeless, Irish Investigations, photography | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 14 Comments

The driving force behind St. Baldrick’s success in Syracuse

St. Baldrick's Kitty Hoynes

Chow Downey, master of ceremonies at Syracuse’s St. Baldrick’s Foundation fundraiser for pediatric cancer research, readies an encouraging fist-bump to a young “shavee” about to go bald for a good cause.

It takes thousands of volunteers and donors to raise almost $500,000 for pediatric cancer research at one event. It also takes one hell of a master of ceremonies to pull it off.

Meet Charles “Chow” Downey. He presides over the annual St. Baldrick’s Foundation fundraiser at Kitty Hoynes Irish Pub in Syracuse, NY. He’ll do it again Sunday, for the 11th consecutive year.

The Kitty Hoynes fundraiser has ranked in the top five St. Baldrick’s events worldwide each of the past several years — a remarkable feat for a financially struggling Snow Belt city. “It’s a tight-knit community,” Chow said of Syracuse. “People stick around. And those who leave miss it.”

In its first 10 years, the Syracuse event has raised more than $3 million, including a record $492,000 in 2014. Chow is the face, and the voice, of St. Baldrick’s Day.

He does his homework, researching the stories behind the kids with cancer — too many of them angels now — and getting to know the family members, friends and complete strangers who shave their heads each March.

St. Baldrick's cancer Kitty Hoynes

Chow Downey introduces the top St. Baldrick’s 2014 fundraiser, Chris Murphy, who raised more than $13,000.

Each year, during a break in the day-long shaving of about 500 heads, a few moms and dads take the small stage at Kitty Hoynes. They thank the “shavees,” the stylists, and the financial contributors.

They stand and speak, looking out at hundreds of faces, with posters of their children decorating the walls behind them. They talk about the importance of research, and the advances being made — even if those advances didn’t come fast enough to save their own child.

If you’re thinking there’s not a dry eye in the house at that point, you are correct.

Take a look at Chow during St. Baldrick’s Day, and you can see how much the loss of those kids affects him. This year will be tougher than most. Since November, cancer has claimed four people in his life — including his 58-year-old sister last month.

Chow’s day job as a regional sales manager for Pepsi takes him on the road a lot. Back in the office, he regains his footing by looking at the wall where he has posted photos and thank-you letters from St. Baldrick’s families. They’ve been touched by Chow’s kindness and sincerity. He has felt the same in return.

“It’s about the families,” Chow said Monday after appearing on a local TV program to promote St. Baldrick’s. “It’s a Catch-22. You’d never have met those people otherwise, but it’s an awful thing they go through.”

Chow Downey, left, with Kitty Hoynes proprietor David Hoyne at the 2012 St. Baldrick's event.

Chow Downey, left, with Kitty Hoynes proprietor David Hoyne at the 2012 St. Baldrick’s Day.

Chow, 49, is a well-known and admired presence in the city. He emcees the annual Irish Fest, volunteered for years with Project Children (a program that brought children from Northern Ireland to Syracuse each summer) and occasionally tends bar at Kitty Hoynes.

Proprieter David Hoyne made a wise decision 11 years ago when he asked Chow to serve as master of ceremonies for St. Baldrick’s. “He’s brought it to another level,” David said. “Chow is a great community person. The number of hours he puts into researching each person’s story, the connection he makes with them, that’s what has made this so successful. That’s what brings people back.”

Mary Kane, who has known Chow since he was an altar boy at their Catholic church in the 1970s, said he is “funny and loud, yet extremely faithful to his friends, heritage, hometown, faith and family.” And, she added, Chow is the most philanthropic and loving person she knows.

“He puts words into action,” Mary said. “His passion for these causes is quite moving. He makes people want to do better, be better.”

Chow will do that again on Sunday, and it will be exhausting. But it’s worth it to him, as it is to the hundreds of people whose lives he makes better each St. Baldrick’s Day.

“I’m never going to not do it,” he said. “I get energized. No matter how tired you are, you’re not going to be as tired as these kids. When you see what they go through first-hand, it changes you forever.”

Below is an excerpt from a letter gracing Chow’s office wall. It’s written to Chow and David Hoyne, from a mom whose son had died and was honored at Kitty Hoynes:

“Such incredible kids & families this year, all the stories, all the broken hearts, all the pain, joy, laughter, sorrow and emptiness … so many emotions & feelings packed into that little bar in Armory Square. For all those in attendance, that one very special day each year will become a part of who they are — remembering our kids who have died and going on to raise awareness for those little ones who continue the fight … but can’t fight this on their own. With warmest regards & my deepest thanks, Aimee McBride”

Chow Downey in a reflective moment during the St. Baldrick's Foundation fundraiser at Kitty Hoynes Irish Pub in Syracuse.

Chow Downey in a reflective moment during the 2014 St. Baldrick’s Foundation fundraiser at Kitty Hoynes Irish Pub in Syracuse.


Posted in cancer, Irish Investigations | Tagged , , , , , , | 14 Comments

‘Kicked the bucket’ and other colorful obituaries

I confess I’m a regular reader of the obit page. When I come across someone whose formal obituary uses a phrase like “kicked the bucket,” I have to read it.

This happened today, and it provides another example of the “small world, small town” nature of where I live in Central New York.

I didn’t know Doug Burdick, whose bittersweet obit points out that he not only kicked the bucket, but did so on Valentine’s Day — reuniting him with his wife, who died in 2011.

The rest of the obit certainly didn’t disappoint. As for the planned celebration of his life (not a funeral), “Doug left specific written demands. Don’t make a fool of yourself, show up the way you always dress, No Monkey Suits. No tears welcome, just smiles. Relax, eat, drink, party and enjoy yourself. Grrrrrrr!”

Here’s the small-town connection — in lieu of flowers, he asked that contributions be made to the St. Baldrick’s Foundation, an organization I’m very familiar with. Mr. Burdick’s grandson, Bryce, is shaving his head March 1 in Syracuse to raise money for childhood cancer research.

Bryce is a member of a team of young kids, “Bodie’s Baldacious Baldies,” led by Bodie C., a fine young man I know. Here’s how to donate to Bryce’s efforts.

On the topic of colorful obits, I highly recommend “The Dead Beat,” a wonderful book by Marilyn Johnson about the art of obituary writing.

Posted in cancer, Irish Investigations | Tagged , , , , , | 9 Comments

Hidden-camera test of kindness: Good idea, but unfair prank

Yesterday morning I learned of a new video that’s making the rounds on social media, a hidden-camera exercise comparing people’s reactions to two individuals on crutches who “fall” on a city street.

Of course I watched it, thinking that I’d be outraged and share it so I could rail against the callousness of my fellow man. Ah, not so fast.

The video: Mr. Crutches A is a well-dressed young man who falls numerous times and is, of course, immediately helped to his feet by passersby each time.

Mr. Crutches B is made up to look “homeless” (don’t all homeless look alike?) — hood over the head, oversized coat, carrying a rumpled sleeping bag, etc. —  and of course, falls and is ignored time and again. Some people even take pains to walk around him at a “safe” distance.

As effective and as well-intentioned as it is, the video was an unfair experiment.

The well-dressed man fell relatively gently, quietly to the pavement. There was nothing “threatening” about him. His face showed distress, and he looked truly helpless, a victim.

The “homeless” person, however, fell violently to the pavement, his possessions scattering every which way. On some falls, he appears to be writhing in pain, whereas the businessman did not. But here’s crucial failing: in most cases, you can’t see the “homeless” person’s face.

Passersby couldn’t determine the person’s emotional state at that moment, and therefore their instinct told them it wasn’t safe to intervene. One person did help the “homeless” faller, but if you watch the video, you’ll see that it’s a setup.

It’s fine to appeal to people’s emotions, to test their capacity for kindness, but please, play it fair and square. As it is, the video risks a negative backlash. It just may reinforce people’s aversion to helping someone who looks “homeless” or different in any respect. (Believe it or not, there are a lot of “homeless prank” videos on YouTube.)

I’m not sure I would rush to the aid of someone whose face I couldn’t see — and gender or race have absolutely nothing to do with it. I’d like to think I would make sure the “homeless” person was OK, even if that meant calling 911 and waiting until help arrived.

So how about a do-over on the video? Hire a real homeless person, or at least someone whose face can be seen, and who falls exactly the same as the “control subject” in the experiment.

I commend the folks at Model Pranksters for creating this video. In a little over a month, it has gotten more than 5 1/2 million views on YouTube. It’s safe to say it has made some viewers stop and think about what they would have done.

A footnote: As a much more skilled writer than I says on occasion, “I’m just Gaelic enough” to believe in a higher power that sends us a cosmic sign now and then.

Yesterday, several hours after watching the “crutches” video, I was walking back to my downtown office after an interview. I saw a well-dressed man crossing the street, stumble — and do a face plant. Hard. Right in the middle of the crosswalk, with no one near him. I cannot make this stuff up.

He wore a stylish full-length coat and a fine fedora, and before he could pick himself right back up — which he did — I started looking for the hidden cameras. I yelled across the street, “Are you OK?” He brushed off the front of his coat, uttered an embarrassed “Whoa!” and went on his way.

I took it as a sign. Of what, who knows …

Posted in Homeless, hunger, Irish Investigations, peace, poverty, religion, role models | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 14 Comments

Which version of ‘Hallelujah’ is the best? Does it matter?

Five years ago I heard a group of college students perform an a cappella version of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah,” and was spellbound.

Newsweek recently ranked 60 versions of the song, from best to worst. I disagree with the magazine’s No. 1, John Cale (“Shrek,” the movie).  My vote goes to Jeff Buckley, with k.d. lang’s live versions (the 2010 Winter Olympics and the 2005 Juno Awards) a close second and third.

I confess I haven’t heard many of the other versions of Cohen’s once-obscure 1984 song, so this is hardly scientific. But apparently I’m not alone favoring Buckley — the linked version above has more than 51 million hits on YouTube.

In the end, it doesn’t matter which is your favorite. The point is to appreciate Cohen’s composition, and the varied interpretations of it by so many talented artists — even a bunch of college kids giving it all they have.

I still marvel at that performance and the effect it had on me, so I guess that puts their version near the top of my list.

Posted in Irish Investigations, language, music, writing | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 15 Comments

When ‘The Boy With No Story’ has a tale to tell

Sometimes I fear I have no story. I don’t mean writer’s block. I mean that I have no story, no narrative that spells out what it is I’ve done, or what I’m doing, with my life.

This struck me the other day when I recalled a children’s story by Irish singer-storyteller Tommy Sands. It’s called “The Boy with No Story.” I remember it from taking one of my boys to hear Sands perform 20 years ago.

It got me thinking about the power of story, and how it’s inextricably linked to the human experience. At the same time, I was getting smacked pretty hard in the gut by some revelations and discoveries about my past — difficult ones, at that.

I believe there’s some sort of master plan that put these things in front of me all at once. That plan has me asking, “What am I doing here?”

Don’t get me wrong. I love telling stories. Other people’s stories. It’s in my Irish DNA, and for good measure I kissed the Blarney Stone on one of my visits to the Erin Isle.

Telling stories is my life’s work, a huge part of my life’s play. For more than two decades I wrote for a newspaper, telling other people’s stories. I still tell stories as part of my current job and I do it here on this blog, where “Everybody has a story.”

I’ve told some. About good people like Gabrielle, RPF and Homeless James. About brave young people — Wayne and Ms. Toots — taken too soon by cancer. I plan on sharing many more.

But I have yet to write my own story. Which brings me back to Tommy Sands, and “The Boy with No Story.” (The boy’s name is Paddy McGee, so how could I not relate to the wee lad?)

Paddy is a good boy, but is distraught, empty and isolated because he has no story to tell. Then one night he is visited by faeries who send him on a mission. It’s a grand adventure that involves a rainbow-colored horse, a sea monster and a certain significant newborn in the Christian religion.

Paddy returns safely (of course!) to tell the faeries the good news they had been waiting eons to hear. Much revelry begins.

Paddy returns to his life, with quite a story to tell. He is welcomed everywhere, for people love to hear his grand tale of the faeries and the courage he showed in the face of danger. His listeners hate to see him go.

Unlike Paddy, I’ve had the luxury of telling other people’s stories. In a way, that is my story. It’s been a fair decent tale so far. It’s given me access to wonderful people I likely wouldn’t have met had I not been a writer.

Other than a few literary figures, the people I’ve written about over the years are not well-known. I like that. If I don’t tell hidden, untold stories, maybe no one will. Then those stories would be lost forever.

I will keep at it. But at some point, I may try something different. I don’t know exactly what that is, or where it will take me. But maybe there’s a story there somewhere.

Here’s a recording of Tommy Sands reading “The Boy With No Story.” 

Posted in Children, communication, family, Irish Investigations, language, music, writing | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 9 Comments

A 67-year-old man in a wheelchair dies, then gets smeared by internet trolls

Syracuse University Marshall Street

Gertis McDowell, last April on the campus of Syracuse University. Gertis died this month at age 67.

The recent passing of Syracuse icon Gertis McDowell is instructive for two very different reasons.

One, we can all learn from his upbeat attitude and the happiness he spread to strangers even when he was in pain.

Two, we can try to put a stop to media outlets that allow “trolls” to hide behind anonymity as they write hurtful comments on the internet.

I wrote about Gertis here last April. He was a 67-year-old diabetic who used a wheelchair and sat at a corner on the Syracuse University campus, shaking a cup of coins and greeting strangers with a cheerful “Hey, Big Papi!” and “Hey, pretty lady!”

He was always happy, friendly and certainly non-threatening. Students enjoyed his presence; some filmed videos about him for YouTube and Vimeo.

When a former SU student, Robert Axelrod, wrote a tribute to Gertis that ran on (the digital outlet of The Post-Standard newspaper), the haters pounced. That’s easy to do when you’re a coward who can hide behind a “cute” user name.

I waited a couple of weeks after his death to post this, to make sure the short-attention-span trolls had directed their venom to new targets who can’t defend themselves. (By my count, there were initially 72 comments about Gertis; almost half were then deleted by the web site’s moderators, but not until after they had been published.)

I won’t give examples, and I can only hope if Gertis had family, they didn’t see any of them. Trust me, some of the comments were despicable, hateful and just wrong.

I’ve challenged on the anonymous troll issue before (over comments about 12-year-old twins who use wheelchairs because of a disease), and have yet to hear a satisfactory explanation of their policy. The moderator didn’t respond to my last reply about the Gertis tribute, when I pointed out that 30-some comments had to be taken down. I asked her, “This is journalism?” . . . Crickets.

Some media outlets have adopted tighter policies in an effort to curb nastiness, or they’ve done away with anonymous comments altogether. Some in the media defend anonymous policies, saying it fosters “community engagement,” gives web users a voice and the freedom to speak without fear of retribution.

That’s part of the problem. They can hide. I maintain that if you have something to say that’s controversial or might offend someone, have the balls to put your name on it. And please, say something that adds to the discussion, an enlightening nuance that others can learn from as part of civil discourse. Freedom of speech carries the weight of responsibility and accountability; it is not a free pass to engage in borderline hate speech.

As for media outlets, what’s stopping them from investing in the staff or technology to moderate comments before they see the light of day and hurt people?

Speaking of money, I’d pay a good sum to watch a well-paid executive at meet face-to-face with Gertis’ family. The exec could go through the hateful comments line by line and explain to Gertis’ family (sitting uncomfortably close, I hope) why those comments were published for tens of thousands of people to read.

And I would love to hear the higher-up’s answer when a family member looks him or her in the eye and asks, “What if this were your loved one being called these names?”

Blog readers, if the media outlets where you live allow anonymous hate speech and you’ve had enough of their pandering to the lowest common denominator, I encourage you to challenge them on it.

And by the way, Gertis — rest in peace. You made a lot of people happy over the years and will be remembered long after the sorry, hateful trolls are forgotten. Then again, we don’t know who they are.

Posted in college, Irish Investigations, language, poverty, Technology, writing | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 26 Comments