Unconditional kindness: the gift of a pair of size 8 shoes

JamesShoesThose who have the least often give the most.

My homeless friend James has a brand new pair of shoes, courtesy of a woman who works at a Dunkin’ Donuts.

James walks several miles a day collecting returnable bottles and cans, and his shoes take a beating. He told me yesterday that he was going to try to get by for a couple of more weeks with the sneakers he had on. They were ripped and full of holes.

This morning, I planned to take a photo of those shoes and ask via Facebook for someone to donate a pair of size 8s to replace them.

IMG_3191So I went looking for James and found him near the post office where he stops every morning to read his newspapers and mail letters. I saw him pushing his trademark shopping cart.

The new shoes were hard to miss. An employee at Dunkin’ Donuts gave them to James when he made his daily stop for coffee a couple of hours earlier. He was happy and grateful.

“They might last me a couple of months, as much as I walk,” James said.

After I left him, I drove to work and saw Paul, a local man who — several mornings a week — delivers breakfast to some of the city’s homeless. He was in his car, making the rounds with homemade egg-sausage-and-cheese sandwiches. James is a regular beneficiary of Paul’s kindness, and they know each other well.

James turns 50 this October. He reminds Paul, who’s 70-ish, not to neglect his own health while he bestows kindness onto so many others. “You may be a church,” James said he tells Paul, “but you’re still a human.”

The same might be said of a woman who works at Dunkin’ Donuts.

Posted in Homeless, Irish Investigations | Tagged , , , , | 15 Comments

A simply beautiful thing, and an ingenious way to share it

Lilacs2These lilacs bloom in our dooryard each spring, but of course their beauty is fleeting.

So it’s best to share it while you can, and not just with a visual.

Two mornings ago, before heading off to the university where several of her friends and classmates are in the midst of an intense graduate course, Michelle clipped one of the blossoms, wrapped it in a wet paper towel and took it with her.

At school, she brought the fragrant flower to every stressed-out classmate and held it up for them to smell. I can’t think of a better incentive to take a deep breath, relax and keep things in perspective.

Posted in Irish Investigations, peace | Tagged , , , , , | 7 Comments

Of ‘Speed Limits’ and ‘Bullshit’ at commencement

Two themes emerged from the speeches at my son’s college commencement Sunday — Slow down. And don’t take any bullshit.

First, the bullshit. The student who was selected to address the undergraduates told of growing up in Zimbabwe, how he was bitten by a poisonous snake and had to have his right leg amputated.

An older relative told him he was disabled and therefore useless, and shouldn’t bother to go to college. The student paused to let that sink in to the now-quiet grads and their families, and then said softly, “Bullshit.”

He won the crowd over at that moment. This young man, about to receive a bachelor’s degree in chemistry, immediately became my favorite commencement speaker ever.

The “elders” who spoke Sunday also were inspirational, including the college president who warned the graduates of the downside to this fast-paced world. He cited Mark Taylor’s book, “Speed Limits,” and how the push to do everything faster is taking a serious toll on us as individuals and as a society.

Slow down, the president said.

But here’s the thing that stuck with me more than that sage advice.

The president, and the commencement speaker he introduced, both gave a sobering nod to the instant gratification and short attention spans that surround us. Two or three minutes into his address, the president said he would keep it short because he had reached the point where the audience starts texting or sending messages.

Then the main speaker, early in her address, said she was worried about what the students would tweet about her — as she spoke.

While both those comments brought chuckles, they seem a sad reminder of how technology has taken over our lives, and is interfering with genuine human interaction. All for the sake of immediacy and, yes, superficiality.

I’m confident the hundreds of graduates and their families were paying attention yesterday. I just hope there’s enough space — not “bandwidth” — in their brains for those valuable lessons to stay with them.

So if you’ve gotten this far, here’s a reminder that’s short enough even for Twitter: Slow down. And don’t take any bullshit.

Posted in college, Irish Investigations, Technology | Tagged , , , , , | 24 Comments

Learning the mandolin — good for my brain, if not your ears

Peghead Nation co-founder Dan Gabel, left, guided me through the mandolin-buying process at Schoenberg Guitars in Tiburon, Calif., March 2014.

Peghead Nation co-founder Dan Gabel, left, guided me through the mandolin-buying process at Schoenberg Guitars in Tiburon, Calif., March 2014. Photo by Michelle Gabel.

Learning to play the mandolin at age 57, with no musical background whatsoever, is best described this way: The spirit is willing, but the flesh is stiff.

But that’s OK, because my musical adventure keeps the brain “muscles” loose and in working order.

I’ll never be ready for prime time, although I sometimes fantasize about sitting in on an Irish session at a pub. For now, I’m taking online lessons from Peghead Nation and making noticeable, if incremental, progress. (Peghead Nation co-founder Dan Gabel offers his thoughts below).

The learning curve is steep, and I often say that learning the mandolin is like learning Mandarin or another language that uses characters rather than letters. There is no frame of reference.

I remain confounded by the musical alphabet — the four double strings on the mandolin are G-D-A-E (Great Danes Are Enormous), but the D string-4th fret combination is an F sharp. (Really? Isn’t this hard enough already?)

Music has always been important to me, and there are particular songs I love. But I struggle sometimes picking out what instruments I’m hearing at a given point in a song. And this has nothing to do with the fact that my hearing in one ear is seriously diminished.

There’s tons of research on music and the brain, and the many benefits of music aren’t in question. Other than for enjoyment and the challenge, I’m taking mandolin lessons to try to help my memory and, down the road, stave off dementia.

People in my family tend to live to 90 and beyond. An aunt lived to 105. I don’t want to end up like my mom, who spent the last few years of her life in the dementia unit of a nursing home.

So I keep plugging away, following my online instructor on video, trying to learn by ear. I’ve developed my own system, literally writing down each note of each phrase of a tune. For example, “A2″ is the A string, while pressing the second fret.

Through repetition, following my notes and watching the videos, the tunes eventually seep into my muscle memory. I’m not yet at that stage where I can “hear” tunes in my head just by thinking about them, but it’s a tremendous feeling when I can play something strictly from memory, without the notes.

On a really good day, I can even play a phrase or two while staring off into space, not looking at my fingers on the strings.

It’s exhilarating, it really is. Inevitably I come down to earth when I miss a fret by a few centimeters and the resulting twang makes me wince. Sometimes I laugh when that happens, although it can be frustrating enough to give it a rest for the day.

A colleague who also happens to be a wonderful singer and guitar player advised me recently to avoid watching mandolin virtuoso Chris Thile (Nickel Creek, the Punch Brothers). She feared I would be so discouraged by the level of his skill, I’d want to throw my mandolin away. I’m pretty sure she was kidding.

I’m actually quite happy watching and learning from Peghead instructor Sharon Gilchrist, whose talent is quite evident. At the moment, she’s guiding me through the intricacies of  “Angeline the Baker.”

Here are some thoughts from Peghead co-founder and executive producer Dan Gabel, a fine mandolin player in his own right:

Whether it’s music or cooking or learning a language, working the brain is our best defense against losing bits of our minds these days. And I do think that music, with its connection to math and its physical aspects, is one of the best possible activities in this regard. But I know I’m biased.

I also love that you share your own system for remembering and writing down tunes, and that it sounds like you see this as a bridge between where you are and being able to fully play by ear. It’s a great technique, and really, Stevie Coyle uses a similar numbering system in his Fingerstyle Guitar course on Peghead Nation.

One final thought – listen to Chris Thile and to Bill Monroe and Mike Compton and David Grisman and Kym Warner of the Greencards and Mike Marshall. . . . They’re all monsters and while you could be daunted by the skill, I think it’s inspiring to hear someone play at such a high level. It’s like watching Magic Johnson or Michael Jordan at their peak. They’re expressing where they’re at, which is really the same thing you’re doing. When it comes down to it, it’s a human in a room with an instrument. We’re all deserving of that simple pleasure. 

Posted in Irish Investigations, music | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 27 Comments

115-year-old photo illustrates family’s link to baseball

My grandfather is in this family photo from more than a century ago. He's in the middle row, far left. I can identify him because he bears a striking resemblance to my late uncle. He played on this baseball team in Syracuse, NY.

My grandfather Joe Dempsey is in the middle row, far left, of this 1900 photo of the St. Cecilia’s baseball team that won the Syracuse city championship that year.

Many of the family photos I inherited after my parents died remain a mystery.

But there’s one that explains my family’s apparent genetic addiction to sports in general, baseball in particular.

For years I’ve been in possession of a photograph of the 1900 St. Cecilia’s baseball team that won the City of Syracuse championship. There’s a rip in the photo, and the heavy paper border has been torn and damaged over the decades. But almost 115 years later, the clarity of the image by photographer P.S. Ryder is excellent.

One of the team members is my maternal grandfather, Joe Dempsey. He was about 20 when the photo was taken, and he’s easy to pick out because he strongly resembles my late uncle Jim Dempsey. The photo found its way to my home after the deaths of my uncle in 1991, my aunt in 1997 and my mom in 2006. A faded “Dempsey” is written in script on the back.

At the urging of fellow blogger Charles Moore, I’ve been trying to find out more about the photo and my grandfather. Charles is a genealogical sleuth and writes about his remarkable discoveries via public records and other research.

Charles wrote a post recently about his family’s ties to baseball through the generations, and I immediately thought of this photo. I offered to send Charles a copy and he replied, quite kindly, that he’d rather read a blog post about it. So I started asking around.

A closeup of my grandfather, middle row, at left.

A closeup of my grandfather, Joe Dempsey, middle row at left.

My sister uncovered a writeup in a 1900 Syracuse newspaper about the city championship. The article was written in a stream of consciousness style that was virtually impossible to decipher — and not as entertaining as the classified ads on the same page, including: “Prominent railroad man, 42 years old, fine looking, worth $35,000, desires attractive, loyal wife.”

Syracuse baseball historian Ron Gersbacher was more help. In a 2012 blog post he mentioned “the St. Cecilia’s nine” that was the city’s best in 1900, and named 11 players on the roster, including my grandfather.

Gersbacher wrote that 3,500 fans paid 25 cents each to watch St. Cecilia’s defeat the Shamrocks, a team from the predominantly Irish neighborhood of Tipperary Hill, for the city championship.

As much as the baseball lore intrigues me, I’m more interested in my ancestry. I’ve been encouraged to subscribe to web-based genealogy services, and will do so when I can devote more time to it.

As for my grandfather Joe Dempsey the ballplayer, I never met him. He became a chemist and died before I was born. My other grandfather died of complications from prostate surgery — in 1928, when my father was 18. (He’s a story for another day.) I only knew one grandmother, and she died when I was 8.

Despite those gaps, and the lack of a deep understanding of who my grandparents were, the family love of baseball endures as a common thread. My mom and dad were fans, and the game was a big part of our upbringing. I’ve since corrupted my three sons, who inherited the McKeever loyalty to the Boston Red Sox — while growing up in Yankees’ country.

I’ll find out more about my grandfather and other ancestors, so that the family history isn’t such a mystery — to me, to my sons and to the next generation of Sox fans.

Posted in Baseball, Irish Investigations | Tagged , , , , , | 17 Comments

‘You can’t say that anymore’ (unless you’re a racist)

Tire tracks cigarette butt

Sunday was the first truly gorgeous day after a long winter — 65 degrees and sunny, perfect for doing yard work.

A regrettable decision, in retrospect.

I’d been meaning to get rid of an old lawn mower, so I hauled it from my shed to the curb, figuring someone would want it.

Soon, a pickup truck slowed in front of my house, and a woman in the passenger seat asked if I was giving the mower away. Yes, I replied, grateful to recycle it.

A man hopped out of the driver’s side, came around and opened the tailgate.

As he reached over to pick up the mower, I showed him where I had used clamps to repair the handle, which had snapped off. “I kind of jerry rigged it,” I said.

He loaded the mower into the truck bed, laughed and said, “I’d use another word for it, but it begins with N and you can’t say that anymore.”

He drove away, and I stood there confused and uncertain about what I had just heard.

Surely he couldn’t have meant the “N word.” I had never heard it in the context of fixing something in a haphazard way, as “jerry rig” implies. Even in my politically incorrect, ethnocentric upbringing, the N word was not acceptable.

Of course, I had to find out. Sure enough . . . the Urban Dictionary definition of “jerry rigged” (a World War II term based on a nickname for German soldiers) included a list of synonyms. “N-rigged” was among them.

Seeing that on the computer screen was awful, and I’m trying not to beat myself up for failing to question what the man meant.

The encounter raised other questions:

Why did I so casually use a term that insults one ethnic group, yet not realize I was hearing something even more offensive to another?

Would the couple have stopped to inquire about the mower if they saw an African-American man in the yard?

How do I squelch the stereotype that white males who drive pickup trucks are good ol’ boys who are pleasant enough — as long as you share the same skin tone?

I also have to fend off a default response that, while cynical, would have come in handy on an otherwise pleasant afternoon: Expect to be disappointed by human behavior; be surprised when people turn out to be genuinely good and kind.

Seems like it should be the other way around.

Posted in Irish Investigations, language | Tagged , , , , , | 18 Comments

Army veteran to bicycle 10,000 miles around America

Bicycle Around America

Brian D’Apice with children in Bogor, Indonesia.

Brian D’Apice was backpacking half a world away when he dreamed up his next adventure, a 10,000-mile fundraising odyssey he’s calling “Bicycle Around America.”

It’s exactly how it sounds. Brian, 30, of Glen Rock, Pa., will ride solo through every state on the perimeter of the continental United States. He’ll start out in New York City May 4, and make it back about a year from now.

The Army veteran is riding to raise money for two charities, Pencils of Promise and Connecting Families. Pencils of Promise builds schools in Southeast Asia and Africa, and Connecting Families provides health care to the poor in Jakarta, Indonesia.

Brian spent the past two-plus years teaching and working in Southeast Asia, after serving two tours in Iraq with the U.S. Army and earning a degree in marketing from York College in Pennsylvania.

Brian D'Apice

Brian D’Apice will ride through 30 states during his Bicycle Around America trek.

“This whole ride is based on appreciation,” Brian said. “I can’t emphasize it enough. It’s to remind people to appreciate what they have. We get this idea that it’s pretty bad here, but compared to other countries, we have it so good.”

The idea for Bicycle Around America was born two years ago, when Brian was backpacking in Southeast Asia.

“I wish there was some sort of story,” he said by phone from his home in southeastern Pennsylvania last week on the eve of turning 30. “I was in Vietnam, and I just woke up one morning and knew what I was going to do. I contacted a friend I had met there and told him, ‘I just got this crazy idea.’ ”

When his friend expressed skepticism, Brian didn’t budge.

“I knew I wanted to speak about what I saw in Asia,” he said, referring to poverty and gaps in education and health care. “The conditions are so extreme, I want this (ride) to be extreme, to draw attention to it.”

Brian will average 30 miles a day, with some long days and recovery days mixed in. Some nights he’ll camp out, others he’ll stay with friends new and old. He wants to speak to as many individuals, school groups and veterans’ organizations as he can. (Contact him via his website, bicyclearoundamerica.com.)

Brian D'Apice with a child in Jakarta, Indonesia.

Brian D’Apice with a child in Jakarta, Indonesia.

Brian welcomes other cyclists to accompany him here and there. His route, fundraising updates, video interviews, his blog and other information are on his website. He’ll also use Twitter (@BikeAroundUSA) and other social media to update his followers.

For the launch, he’s going big. On the morning of May 4, Brian will be in Rockefeller Center outside NBC’s TODAY show studios, holding up a sign promoting his trip.

Then he’ll get on his 2015 Jamis Aurora Elite touring bike and ride.

He’ll pedal north toward Boston (where younger brother Brent lives) to speak at a school May 11. The rest of his itinerary is fluid. He plans to reach the Pacific Northwest this summer, ride down the coast in the fall and pedal across the southernmost states during the winter. From Florida, he’ll head north to New York City, where he hopes to arrive close to his 31st birthday next April.

The goal is to raise $100,000 and split it between Pencils of Promise and Connecting Families. Donors also can help pay for the ride; Brian has already spent about $2,000 of his own money on camping and bike equipment. He has sponsors, but will burn a lot of calories and will need to “go grocery shopping just like everyone else,” he said.

Brian suspects the mental challenges of the ride will be tougher than the physical, and he hopes to minimize the dreaded headwinds that take a toll on body and mind. (A windblown 52-mile training ride on Easter Sunday was not fun, he said).

Preparing for the ride has consumed his life in recent weeks — logistics, media interviews, training rides, even a visit to his old elementary school to speak to classes.

“I’ve never worked so hard and not earned any money,” Brian said. “But I couldn’t be more motivated.”

His brother Brent isn’t surprised that Brian is giving up a year of his life to do this, noting his military service and his work with aid organizations in Southeast Asia.

“Even growing up, he always wanted to help others,” said Brent, who’s 25 (another brother, Brandon, turns 32 this month).  “Now that he’s back, he exemplifies his giving nature with this bike ride. The one thing I didn’t see when I was young, but clearly see now, is the one resounding trait Brian possesses — selflessness.”

I’ll keep track of Brian’s trip, which will bring him to Syracuse, NY (Irish Investigations headquarters) in late May. Anyone who wants to help Brian — or ride with him — can contact me by commenting below, or reach out to Brian directly via social media.

Bicycle Around America

Brian D’Apice with friends in Bogor, Indonesia.


Posted in Irish Investigations, poverty | Tagged , , , , , , | 18 Comments

A sad and vacant house, soon to become a home

The upstairs of a house being renovated to house three homeless men in Syracuse.  By day's end, the roof had new plywood and tar paper.

The upstairs of a house being renovated for three homeless men in Syracuse, NY. By day’s end, the roof had new plywood and tar paper.

When my co-workers and I arrived Friday morning to help restore a vacant, neglected house, it was hard to envision its future — a residence for three homeless men.

The house and surroundings were in awful shape. A few of us wondered why the structure, built in 1900, hadn’t been demolished.

Rescue Mission of Syracuse

The house as it looked mid-day Friday.

The roof was a mess. Some interior beams were charred from a fire. The upstairs floor had holes you could step through. Debris and dust were everywhere inside. The situation outside was worse.

But the closer we looked, and the more we worked, signs of hope emerged in this effort known as Community Build to End Homelessness.

Teams of volunteers have been working on the house, evidenced by newly framed interior rooms, new sheet metal ductwork and new plywood on parts of the roof. The three homeless men are scheduled to move in by the end of May.

One of dozens of syringes found on the property.

One of dozens of syringes found on the property.

Roofers still have to finish their grueling work, tearing off three layers of roofing and replacing rotted boards, putting on new tar paper and shingles. Windows have to be installed, and then the interior work begins — plumbing, electrical, drywall, paint.

Our crew accomplished quite a bit in less than six hours. More than a dozen of us toiled outside, hauling load after load of old roofing shingles and hoisting them into a rollaway dumpster . . . trimming overgrown bushes . . . raking wet leaves . . . picking up litter and debris, including dozens of used syringes and condoms.

The house has a long way to go, mirroring the neighborhood and the hurting segment of society that it symbolizes. (The roofers arrived Friday morning to find two men who had spent the night on the back porch. By day’s end, the rear entrance was boarded up.)

We can choose to be pessimistic about the chances for this house and its prospective inhabitants. Or we can choose to be optimistic.

Snowdrops appeared from under cover in front of the house. A symbolic sign of hope.

Snowdrops appeared from under cover in front of the house. A symbolic sign of hope.

Syracuse’s Rescue Mission, the United Way and the many volunteers and companies are turning their optimism into action. The Community Build program has already rehabbed a nearby house, now home to five men.

If that first home doesn’t work out, or this second project falls flat . . . at least they tried.

With enough hands, money and energy, it’s astounding how quickly things can improve. At one point Friday afternoon, one of the volunteers remarked on how good the grounds looked. Another noted how full the rollaway dumpster was.

There was talk among our crew of coming back another day to help.

The end of May seems optimistic, perhaps unrealistic. But this house will be a home some day. By then, the tiny snowdrop flowers blooming in the front yard will be joined by other signs of hope and beauty.

This sign says it all.

This sign says it all.



Posted in Homeless, Irish Investigations, poverty | Tagged , , , , , | 24 Comments

Is it worth the risk for a business to help the homeless?

An encounter in a restaurant today confirmed a pattern I’ve noticed in the treatment of my city’s homeless and destitute.

I’ve come across several local businesses — restaurants, mainly — that extend kindness, either with free food or coffee, a place to stash belongings, even a place to sleep.

Today, I was having lunch in a locally owned restaurant when a man shuffled in and said something to me that I couldn’t understand. It was hard to hear and I thought he was asking for bus money, a common con line.  So I told him sorry, can’t help you.

As he walked past, the smell of stale urine on his clothes was unmistakeable. He went to the counter, asked for a cup of coffee or anything else they could spare — and was treated kindly and with respect. Coffee appeared in front of him. He sat at the counter and didn’t bother anyone as he drank it. A few minutes later, he left.

It clicked. Here was yet another example I’ve witnessed of businesses helping the homeless. (How do I know this man was homeless? I don’t. But he was in rough shape).

* One chain sandwich shop in Syracuse allows my friend James to sit in a booth for hours to get out of sub-zero temperatures. He’ll buy a sandwich and play video games on his Gameboy while his clothes dry out.

* Two chain restaurants near the Syracuse University campus feed homeless regulars, sometimes in exchange for odd jobs; one restaurant allows a man to store his belongings behind the counter.

* A Syracuse factory allows a man to sleep outdoors behind its property; some employees supply him with food and clothing.

Over the years, I’ve heard of other establishments that extend similar kindness.

As much as I want to promote and applaud these businesses, I hesitate to identify them. Maybe the employees are doing this on their own, and the owner wouldn’t appreciate it. (Today, however, the restaurant owner was right there and didn’t miss a beat in helping a fellow human being.)

When I witness these gestures, I thank the employees and usually buy something. I will go back to the restaurant that helped the man today, and do the same.

I’ll also try to spend more of my money there, and talk up their good deeds. They’re taking a chance, but I like to think the benefits outweigh the risks.

Posted in Homeless, Irish Investigations | Tagged , , , , , , | 22 Comments

Photo 101, Final Day: Triumph, best shared

ChuckHalfNearFinish copyToday’s Photo 101 assignment asked us to capture an image of triumph.

I went to the files for one of my favorite vicarious triumphs — one of my sons completing his first half-marathon, in 2011. I snagged the above shot of Chuck as he rounded the final corner at the 13-mile mark, with just one-tenth of a mile to go. He was happy (and ignored the red signal for pedestrians).

Running is a huge part of my life, and it’s even better when I get to share it with my sons. This October, my oldest (Dan) and I will run a full marathon together — his first, and my 12th go at the 26.2-mile distance. Below is a photo of my bib and shirt from last year’s Columbus Marathon.

The word on the front of the shirt? “TRIUMPH.”


Posted in Irish Investigations, photography, running | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 12 Comments