Information overload often brings more heat than light

MLKinjustice copyInformation overload got the better of me the past two weeks.

It’s not that I didn’t want to keep up with the SCOTUS rulings, the South Carolina church murders, and the escape and capture of two convicted murderers in northern New York.

I went online often to catch up, and there was just too much — too many posts, too many tweets, too many angry, polarizing comments.

Too much noise.

I tuned a lot of it out, figuring the passage of time would bring some welcome light, rather than heat, into the court of public opinion. So, with a nod to the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s words above on his memorial in Washington, D.C. …

The South Carolina murders and the Confederate flag: Why did it take the premeditated murders of nine black church-goers by a white racist to force an entire nation to do something about state-sponsored racism?

Let’s look around. Are there other symbols besides the Confederate flag in our midst that we accept, or will continue to ignore, until another act of hatred wakes us up? (And has anyone noticed that eight black churches in the south have caught fire since the murders?)

“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

The SCOTUS rulings

When I toured the Supreme Court a couple of years ago and looked up at those nine chairs, I was in awe of our nation’s history, its Constitutional foundation and its balance of power. Sitting in the very chamber where decisions have been made to shape this country (school desegregation, due process, the right to counsel, etc.) was almost overwhelming. I felt proud and fortunate to live here and now. 

Last week I tried to educate myself on the dissenting justices’ positions on the Affordable Care Act and especially on same-sex marriage. I couldn’t understand such opposition to equal rights, and hoped for a reasonable explanation based on their interpretations of law and the Constitution. 

Starting with Justice Scalia was a mistake, as the snarkiness in his dissent on same-sex marriage was far from informative, and downright discouraging. And I had more than a little trouble with this statement from Justice Thomas: “Slaves did not lose their dignity (any more than they lost their humanity) because the government allowed them to be enslaved.”  

“We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.”

The Dannemora prison break: A convicted murderer (who dismembered one of his victims) was shot and killed by authorities Friday, three weeks after he and another inmate escaped from prison. Two days later, his fellow escapee — a cop-killer — was shot but captured alive.

Comparisons to films like “The Shawshank Redemption” and “Cool Hand Luke” (by New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo and others) and speculation about who would portray these two bad actors in a movie, made me cringe. The escapees didn’t vandalize parking meters, or spring from the imagination of Stephen King. They killed people, including a sheriff’s deputy. So why make mythical cult figures out of them?

“Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”

Posted in American History, Irish Investigations | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | 11 Comments

Bicycle Around America update: A promise from Switzerland

Lukas Amann, a supporter of Brian D'Apice and Bicycle Around America, poses on a mountaintop in Switzerland.

Lukas Amann, a supporter of Brian D’Apice and Bicycle Around America, poses on a mountaintop in Switzerland.

Brian D’Apice’s Bicycle Around America adventure has gained momentum and an outrageous amount of support from across the country.

Friends and strangers have donated to Brian’s designated charities (Pencils of Promise and Connecting Families), put him up for the night, fed him, invited him to speak at schools, etc.

And then there’s Lukas Amann, a young man who is supporting Brian spiritually and physically from thousands of miles away.

Lukas and Brian met in Thailand, and I’ll let Lukas share that story below. But first, here’s part of a message he sent to Brian before his 10,000-mile solo trek began May 4.

“Chances are there will come a point where sh*t hits the fan and things get rough. And when that happens, it’s nice to know you’re not alone in your suffering.

“So, I combined several of my jogging routes into one big one that leads through part of Zürich and up Üetli-Mountain, where this pic (above) was taken.

Brian D'Apice

Brian D’Apice

“So when you feel like giving up, shoot me a message and I will run that 15k route (9.3 miles) the very same day, no matter what. That way, you can be sure that on the opposite side of the planet some guy is torturing himself with you for your cause and can – at least to some degree – feel your pain. All the best from Europe!”

Brian was touched by Lukas’ offer, although he has yet to take him up on it. The first 1,400 miles have gone quite well.

“I have not had a day rough enough to ask him to do that,” Brian said this week after a day of riding in Ohio. “I don’t want to jump the gun, but I feel I may never have a day that rough. This is mostly because of how I ‘enjoy’ the challenges of a trip like this. . . . I appreciate his willingness to suffer with me as I enjoy suffering with the people for whom I am raising money.”

Here are excerpts of Lukas’ account of how he met Brian, and why that meeting left such an impression:

I met Brian when I traveled in Thailand. I was doing this journey as an adventurous holiday trip, but I was also seeking an approach to spirituality and wanted to get into meditation which is so widely practised in numerous monasteries there.

Eventually I was introduced to the world of spirituality by this American guy, Brian, who stayed at the same room in a youth hostel. He was having a vivid conversation about religion and society with a German guy who also stayed at the place, when I entered the room.

I was very interested in what Brian was saying and the three of us spent some days together in Chiang Rai, visiting a museum, eating baked grasshoppers, playing football (soccer) with a traditional ball made from bamboo and most of all, having lots and lots of talks about spirituality, mindfulness and meditation. Brian was and is deeply inspiring and contagiously positive person to me.

We did not keep contact a lot, but as I hit rock bottom for a while, he was one of the very few people who I very much felt like getting in touch with and seeking advice. If you’d ask me which accidental acquaintances I am most grateful for in my life, he’d belong to that small bunch of people.

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

‘Community Build’ house looking more like a home

'Community Build' house  will soon be home to three men from the Rescue Mission of Greater Syracuse.

This ‘Community Build’ house will soon be home to three men from the Rescue Mission of Greater Syracuse.

The “Community Build” project in Syracuse to house three formerly homeless men is nearing completion.

Two months ago, a group of us from Upstate Medical University spent a day volunteering at the property, which was in pretty sad shape.

We went back Friday to do more work, and the house is looking more like a home. The three men are slated to move in by the end of July.

It’s an exciting transformation to behold. On our first visit in April, I wondered why anyone would bother to try to save the house from demolition.

Assorted volunteer groups have been helping contractors in many phases of the project. I’ll post another update this summer when the work is done.


Main room, with stairs leading to three bedrooms.


A view from the center of the house toward the street.

One of three upstairs bedrooms.

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

Free smiles for volunteers at 5K fundraiser

Paige's Butterfly Run

Happy participants in Paige’s Butterfly Run 5K in Syracuse. This group entered the “centipede” division and ran the 5K tethered together.

This is the fourth year I’ve volunteered at Paige’s Butterfly Run, a 5-kilometer run in Syracuse that benefits children (and their families) receiving care at Upstate Golisano Children’s Hospital.

The run is named for Paige Arnold, an 8-year-old who died of cancer 21 years ago. Her parents started the Butterfly Run in 1997, and it now generates more than $200,000 per year for the hospital. Paige’s has raised more than $2 million overall for treatment, research and family assistance.

My job each of the past few years has been to stand at either the 1- or 2-mile point on the course with a stopwatch and call out the elapsed time as runners go by. The faster folks always want to know their pace, so I have to call out the time frequently — and loudly — as the lead pack goes by.

I continue that for several solid minutes as the middle of the pack cruises past. My voice usually starts to go hoarse, but I can ease up as the crush of runners thins out and is replaced by joggers and walkers.

Girls on the Run

Girls on the Run.

At Paige’s Saturday, there were dozens and dozens of green T-shirt-clad “Girls on the Run” — girls in grades three through five, running with a coach, in a program designed to foster empowerment through running.

In some cases, it was hard to tell if the girls were glad to have hit the 2-mile point, or discouraged that they had 1.1 miles to go.

But along with the other volunteers at my spot (a group of high school students from Paige’s home town), we offered enough encouragement to get a lot of smiles in return.

We counted on their coaches, including many moms, to take it the rest of the way. I’m confident there were even more smiles at the finish line.

Posted in cancer, children's hospital, Irish Investigations, running | Tagged , , , , | 19 Comments

Bicycle Around America: It’s all about gratitude and compassion

Brian D'Apice

Brian D’Apice

Brian D’Apice is more than 800 miles into his 10,000-mile Bicycle Around America, a solo journey around the perimeter of the lower 48 United States.

Gratitude and compassion are the driving forces behind Brian’s ride, which is helping two international charities. After two tours in Iraq with the U.S. Army, Brian earned a college degree and then spent almost three years in Southeast Asia, teaching and working.

He saw extreme poverty. Lots of it. And he wanted to do something about it.

Brian D'Apice speaking to high school students.

Brian D’Apice speaking to high school students in Central New York this week.

He woke up one morning in Vietnam with an idea, and Bicycle Around America was born. The journey began May 4 in New York City. Brian, 30, will make it back there in about 11 months, after what he hopes is a successful trek that will raise $100,000 — and a lot of gratitude and compassion.

Michelle and I had the pleasure of hosting Brian this week, when he took a break from his grueling riding schedule to speak to students and meet fellow veterans in Central New York. (He’s looking for more speaking engagements along the way).

Others who had never met Brian embraced his cause, put him up for the night, fed him, took him shopping, donated to Pencils of Promise and Connecting Families.

He’s encountered plenty of good will throughout New England and New York State.

PJ and family, one of the many who have reached out to help Brian -- and feed him -- during his 10,000-mile bicycle ride.

PJ Zoccolillo, one of the many people who have reached out to help Brian during his 10,000-mile bicycle ride. PJ hosted Brian at a barbecue, and gave him a care package for the road, including a Syracuse University T-shirt.

“The generosity of the people I’ve met on this trip has been astonishing,” Brian wrote in his Bicycle Around America blog this week. “I’ve found that people genuinely want to help a good cause. I’ve seen it time and time again and I’m not even 10% of the way through the ride!”

I’ll be updating Brian’s progress throughout the year, and you can follow him on Twitter (@BikeAroundUSA) or on the Bicycle Around America Facebook page.

Brian will soon ride through western New York, Ohio, deeper into the Midwest, across the Great Plains to the Pacific Northwest … down the coast to San Diego, across Texas  … to Florida, and up the coast.

It’s an incredibly challenging trip, but Brian is more than prepared and more than capable. Besides a steady tail wind, he could use some help along the way. So if you’re anywhere near where his route takes him (the map is on his website), he would be grateful for a comfortable bed and a hearty meal. He’ll even do the dishes, as he did time and again at our house.

You won’t regret meeting this young man.

Here’s a two-minute newscast and interview with Brian on a Syracuse television station, a writeup about him by my blogging buddy Mark Bialczak, and an Irish Investigations post before he set out from Times Square.

Posted in Irish Investigations, role models | Tagged , , , , , , , | 18 Comments

Why the sense of urgency? The numbers don’t lie

cropped-nightsky2.jpgI turned 58 a week ago. Amid all the birthday cheer on Facebook was a post from a childhood friend, sharing that his mom had died that very morning.

That sad news reinforced what I wrote the next day to thank everyone — I have much to be grateful for, yet there is a relentless sense of urgency to live the rest of my years in a deliberate, meaningful way.

One of my friends, a wonderful writer in his mid-50s, messaged me and wanted me to dig deeper, to explain what I meant. I’ve been drafting a response. Here’s part of it:

On the drive to pay respects to my friend’s mom, I thought back to the last time I had been at that funeral home, when my former basketball and football coach died. I thought it had been two, maybe three years ago. I looked up his obit the next day and it said he died six years ago, but there’s no way . . .

The route to the funeral home took me past the gas station where I worked in high school. Gas was 37 cents a gallon, and I made $2 an hour as a pump jockey — a 40-hour week netted $64.22 after taxes. The calendar says that was 40 years ago, but there’s no way . . .

Seeing my childhood friend and his brothers was a bit surreal, especially at their mom’s calling hours. But I took comfort in telling them — and their dad — the great memories I had of hanging out at their house as a kid. The calendar says that was 45 years ago, but there’s no way . . .

I’m not in denial, really. I know how to add, and the numbers don’t lie.

I figure I have 10 years, 20 if I’m lucky, to accomplish all I’d like to. Each year goes by faster than the one before.

The urgency, the need to live deliberately, gnaws at me every day.

It’s tempting to sell off most of my possessions and head west to make a go of it — as a freelance writer/editor, as an advocate for the homeless, as a mentor, as an aging distance runner, as a . . . I don’t know.

Maybe there’s something I haven’t yet discovered or considered.

But the window is closing. Slowly, yes, but it is closing.

Soon after my mom went into a nursing home in 2002, I looked around one day at all the residents and thought, “Is this it? Is this all there is?”

That’s not the last chapter I want to write, not how I want this story to end.

Posted in Irish Investigations | Tagged , , , , , | 43 Comments

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 , , , , | 20 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 , , , , , , , , | 29 Comments