‘Campus carry,’ hardware store ‘hero’ and more gun madness

It’s only a matter of time — weeks, days, hours . . . minutes? — until the next mass shooting in America.

We’re all so tired of this. Tired of the “thoughts and prayers,” the anger and intransigence on both sides of the Second Amendment, the empty rhetoric from our alleged representatives.

This has dragged on so long (Columbine, Virginia Tech, Sandy Hook, Charleston, etc.) there’s virtually nothing new to say, nothing fresh to add to the discussion. I try to read the comments on social media about the Oregon murders, and it’s so infuriating and polarizing, so depressing, I have to turn away.

To sports. Netflix. Anything.

I start to feel better in my escapism, my apathy, and then I think of my three sons. They’re in their 20s, and they’ll have to live among the madness longer than I will.

Bottom line, I hope they don’t get caught in the wrong place at the wrong time — a pretty pathetic goal for a parent in a civilized society.

America’s entrenched gun culture scares the shit out of me. Somehow we allowed the Oregon murderer and his mom to have 14 guns in their home, all nice and legal. The mental health screening argument doesn’t wash with me. Why does anyone need 14 weapons, other than perhaps you’re planning to take six of them into a classroom and start firing?

I like what Australia did, although I doubt it would fly here. The country imposed tough laws after a 1996 massacre that killed 35 people, and it hasn’t had a mass shooting since. Suicides have also declined.

The U.S., for all its collective smarts, has really fucked up on this. We’re dying in droves — innocent kids, battered partners, the depressed who can get it over with quickly and messily, the street toughs who didn’t have much hope to begin with.

I understand now why some splinter groups have tried to form their own utopian societies, out of fear or disillusionment with what surrounds them. But the Oneida Community didn’t last long, and Jonestown and the Branch Davidians . . . those didn’t work out so well.

Since I can’t flee to some uncharted island, I hope lawmakers realize the “solution” to our gun problem isn’t to let everyone start packing heat. Data from the National Violent Death Reporting System show it’s not a good idea, but facts, which can be annoying, get in the way of an ideology rooted in selfishness and ignorance.

As soon as I start thinking America’s not crazy enough to revert to the Wild West, I stumble upon things like this: starting next August, some Texas college students will be able to bring guns to class and other areas of campus.

It’s a state law dubbed “campus carry.”

What a really, really bad idea. Tell me the faculty and non-carrying students aren’t going to be scared to death any time a controversial topic comes up in a crowded lecture hall.

(I can hear the argument now: “If a ‘good guy with a gun’ had been in the classroom at Umpqua Community College, he could have stopped the ‘bad guy with a gun.'” I doubt it, since this bad guy was also wearing body armor and had a lot of ammo.)

Anecdotal evidence aside, allowing more people to carry guns just isn’t the answer, whether it’s a 21-year-old on a college campus, your child’s kindergarten teacher, the crossing guard, the neighborhood barber.

There’s the dangerous tendency to play the hero, as a woman did in Detroit this week, pulling out a gun and firing several shots at a shoplifter’s vehicle in a Home Depot parking lot. No one was injured, and the shoplifter got away.

The shooter, a 46-year-old with a permit, happened to be in the area, put two and two together and came up firing. She could face charges.

One firearms instructor put the woman’s actions in the “worst nightmare” category. No. A “worst nightmare” would be if the shooter injured or killed innocent bystanders — say, a child in a car seat or a guy who went to the hardware store to buy a drill.

What an awful way to die. What a stupid way to live.

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

A gift for James on his 50th birthday — a home

James Williamson at his 50th birthday party. Photo by Michelle Gabel.

After years of living on the streets, James gets the keys to his own apartment the day after he turns 50. Photo by Michelle Gabel.

A few weeks ago I asked my homeless friend James what he thought about his upcoming 50th birthday.

“It’s just another day,” he said as he sorted returnable bottles and cans before taking them to the redemption center. “Just another day.”

James couldn’t have been more wrong. He turned 50 today; tomorrow he gets the keys to his own apartment. If there’s a better birthday present, I’d like to see it.

Thanks to the efforts of a variety of people who know and admire him, James is finally off the streets — where he’s been for more than half his life.

Today, James’ friends and supporters helped him celebrate his 50th and the beginning of a new chapter. The mayor of Syracuse, Stephanie Miner, attended the second of two gatherings held in his honor.

“I can’t believe the mayor’s here,” he said. “I’ve never met a mayor before.”

James prepares to blow out the candles on his 50th birthday cake. Photo by Michelle Gabel.

James prepares to blow out the candles on his 50th birthday cake. Photo by Michelle Gabel.

He and the mayor discussed cooking vegetables, and James joked that the next time she sees him downtown, he’ll be showing some extra pounds from eating too much birthday cake.

Yes, there was cake — two, actually, both made from scratch, including one for breakfast at Freedom of Espresso, a coffee shop whose co-owner Anna Dobbs has been helping James for years. At his second celebration of the day, James made a point to thank Dobbs, who wasn’t among the dozen or so in attendance.

“This all started with her,” he said, prompting smiles throughout the room.

James has been smiling a great deal since he transitioned into a motel two weeks ago. A few days before that, when he was sleeping outside on a bench, he had his belongings stolen — the second time in a matter of weeks.

The thefts coincided with efforts by community advocates Mary McLaughlin PhD and John Tumino, who operates a not-for-profit outreach, In My Father’s Kitchen.

McLaughlin had watched a recent video about James by photojournalist Kevin Rivoli, and arranged a meeting with an agency to get services for James. Things started falling into place. Tumino then helped him find the apartment and is guiding him through the transition, including working with an agency to get the apartment furnished.

James even picked out a color scheme — black furniture, red couch, white kitchen table and chairs.

James and Syracuse mayor Stephanie Miner at James' 50th birthday celebration. Photo by Michelle Gabel.

James and Syracuse Mayor Stephanie Miner at James’ 50th birthday. Photo by Michelle Gabel.

It’s important, Tumino said, for people to maintain a connection with James now that he’s found housing. Volunteers from In My Father’s Kitchen will visit and help him with life skills and with situations in which he may need support.

James is ahead of the game.

He’s intelligent, respectful and sociable. He has no addictions other than cigarettes and coffee. He doesn’t panhandle, and walks several miles a day collecting returnable bottles and cans to redeem for walking-around money.

More than once during the birthday celebrations, I heard the phrase, “It takes a village.”

I also felt some momentum starting to build.

A customer at Freedom of Espresso offered to donate a piece of art for James’ apartment … a party guest noted that he and James are about the same size, and said some clothes are headed his way … co-workers of mine are asking me what else they can give (they’ve given a lot already).

And then there’s this: the notion that, as long as James thrives in this new chapter, there might be someone else on our streets who could use a village.

John Tumino gives a blessing before cake is served at James' birthday party.

John Tumino gives a blessing before cake is served at James’ birthday party. Photo by Michelle Gabel.

Posted in Homeless, Irish Investigations | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 25 Comments

Homelessness in Seattle: Part Two

A regular on the streets of Seattle's Pioneer Square.

A regular on the streets of Seattle’s Pioneer Square.

Three observations from my recent Seattle visit that included volunteering for an organization that advocates for the homeless:


As I walked through downtown one afternoon looking for street newspaper vendors to interview, the rains came.

I was soaked and needed to dry out before boarding the train home. My port in the storm? An Irish pub in Seattle’s gritty Pioneer Square.

At the bar, a man with close-cropped gray hair — and sunglasses — had just ordered a drink. The bartender asked where he was going to sit.

After the man settled into a booth near the entrance, I noticed he had a backpack and a large, lumpy garbage bag with him. Both were at his feet, sticking out into the aisle. He took his time with his drink, gazing out the window at the rain, sunglasses on. He folded and unfolded a small piece of paper, looking at it and putting it back in his pocket several times.

The place started to fill up with well-dressed professionals who had called it a day. The man got up and headed for the back of the pub, presumably to the men’s room. He left his backpack and garbage bag where they were. After about 10 minutes he hadn’t come back, and I left.

The next day I saw the man sitting with his backpack and garbage bag on a bench in nearby Occidental Park, a common gathering place for Seattle’s homeless.

If you’re homeless and in a crowded white-collar establishment, you needn’t worry about anyone stealing your stuff.


The smell of urine — stale, pungent, soaked into clothing — is unmistakeable and powerful. I observed two instances, both involving women and unrelated to the volunteer work I was doing. I was simply using public transportation.

As I waited on an underground platform for a train, three men in bright yellow security vests converged on a woman. She was wrapped almost head to toe in black, and gave off a strong odor they must have detected before I did.

They surrounded her, and rather casually told her she had to leave. I heard the word “hygiene.” She left, but not before sitting down next to a trash can and rocking back and forth until she was again told to move along. I wondered where she would go.

A few days later: A disheveled, white-haired woman boarded a city bus on a busy Saturday afternoon, sunny and warm. As she walked by, there was no mistaking the odor. She was in bad shape. The bus was crowded. She picked a seat a few rows behind us, next to a man who, to his credit, didn’t get up and move. I looked back as we got off the bus, and I wondered where she was going.


Jonas Stone is a street newspaper vendor who told me bits and pieces of his life story. He worked a variety of jobs, served in the military, was a sound technician for a rock ‘n’ roll band, married and divorced twice. He’s 57, has five children and four grandchildren.

“I really started drinking when my first son died at birth,” he said. That was in the 1980s. “I had a one-track mind, drinking two fifths of rum a day.”

Jonas Stone sells a copy of the weekly street newspaper, Real Change.

Jonas Stone sells a copy of the weekly street newspaper, Real Change.

He ended up in Seattle and was homeless for about 15 years, often sleeping under a tree. One day he was sitting on the ground and a woman asked him if he wanted help. He said yes, and wound up in rehab.

The day after Jonas told me about the woman, I asked him: What made you say yes?

“I got sick and tired of being sick and tired, as they say,” Jonas said. “She had seen me a few times, and could see my condition was deteriorating.”

He relapsed after a month, got into trouble and was given the choice of rehab or jail. He chose rehab, and this time it stuck. That was 2007. Now Jonas goes home every night to an apartment he shares with another veteran. “I don’t want to drink,” he said, “and I don’t need to.”

I wonder. If that woman hadn’t cared enough to ask Jonas if he wanted help, where would he be right now?

Posted in Homeless, Irish Investigations, poverty | Tagged , , , , , , , | 11 Comments

Homelessness in Seattle: Part One

In Seattle's Pioneer Square, Jonas Stone works his corner selling copies of the weekly street newspaper Real Change. In the background is a young man sleeping under a coat next to his cardboard sign. Soon after I took this photo, a security guard woke the young man and told him to leave. Someone had left a blanket for the young man, but he didn't take it with him.

In Seattle’s Pioneer Square, Jonas Stone sells copies of the weekly street newspaper Real Change. In the background, a young man sleeps under a coat. Jonas was homeless for 15 years, but quit drinking eight years ago.

My recent vacation in Seattle included volunteering with Real Change, an award-winning weekly street newspaper sold by homeless and low-income street vendors.

I spent some time with vendor Jonas Stone, 57.

Jonas was homeless for about 15 years until he stopped drinking and successfully completed rehab on his second attempt.

He’s spent the past eight years selling Real Change at a busy corner in Pioneer Square, Seattle’s gritty “original neighborhood.”

Jonas Stone, street vendor for Real Change.

Jonas Stone, a street vendor for the Real Change weekly street newspaper.

Jonas started drinking in the ’80s after a son died at birth. Now he brings joy to the faces of passersby, cheerfully ordering them to smile and to have a good day. If they have a suitcase and are headed to the ferry, he tells them to send him a postcard.

“I know what it’s like being down and out,” Jonas said. “If you don’t stay positive, all you get is negativity.”

Jonas is a success story. I didn’t have to look far from his corner to see others who were clearly hurting.

Seattle has a huge homeless — “problem” is the easy word here, but the more optimistic word is “challenge.” And many residents, organizations and elected officials are meeting it head on.

The city approves and regulates “tent cities.” Churches open their parking lots to families living in their vehicles. Organizations like Real Change advocate for the homeless and for low-income people who can’t afford to rent a decent apartment.

Seattle is a beautiful, vibrant and growing city, but it is not cheap to live there. Lucrative tech jobs have helped drive up property values and housing costs. Real Change cites a national study showing urban homelessness rises 15 percent with every $100 increase in rent.

Take it from a woman who regularly buys Real Change from Jonas: “I make almost six figures and can’t afford to live in Seattle.” Instead, she lives in Bremerton, an hour-long commute to her job — by ferry.

The Seattle/King County Commission on Homelessness conducts an annual “One Night Count” by sending volunteers out from 2 to 5 a.m. to document how many people are living in the streets.

The Jan. 23, 2015 count was 3,772 people living outside, an increase of 21 percent from the year before. Another 6,000 or so are in shelters or transitional housing.

Walk almost any street in downtown Seattle and you’ll soon see someone under a blanket on a sidewalk, asking for change at a corner or wandering around, talking incoherently. Men and women, young and old, black and white.

As I walked the city, I kept thinking about the emotional and mental stress of not having anywhere to go. Nowhere to sleep, nowhere to feel safe. Day after day, night after night. And that’s on top of the obvious physical toll and danger of living outdoors.

Some days it was discouraging. Poverty, addiction, mental illness, lack of opportunity and other factors that can contribute to homelessness all seemed overwhelming, a complex mess that will never be solved.

But there were moments — listening to Jonas talk about his recovery, watching 500 people give standing ovations to courageous Real Change Vendors of the Year Lisa Sawyer and Michael Johnson — that gave me hope.

Yet those comforting, comfortable moments also made one thing very clear. The vulnerable can’t do it alone. They need, as Real Change believes, a hand up. That’s where we come in, starting with awareness and compassion, followed by action.

I’m in awe of those relentless advocates who keep at it, who keep fighting for the vulnerable no matter how messy it gets. And I’m grateful they’re out there doing it.

(More observations on Seattle and homelessness to come.)

The Union Gospel Mission in Seattle's Pioneer Square, where many of the city's vulnerable residents gather.

The Union Gospel Mission in Seattle’s Pioneer Square.

Posted in Homeless, Irish Investigations, poverty | Tagged , , , , , , | 13 Comments

Rescued from the brink, a house becomes a home

A "Community Build" renovation project in Syracuse, now home to three formerly homeless men.

A ceremony to unveil a “Community Build” house in Syracuse, now home to three formerly homeless men.

The homeless population in Syracuse, NY, officially decreased by three Wednesday.

It took about 4,600 hours of volunteer time, help from more than 50 companies and $107,000 in in-kind services, but Ed, Frank and Pat — homeless at points in their lives — now share a home of their own.

Ed, one of three men living in the home.

Ed, one of three men living in the home, thanks volunteers at Wednesday’s ceremony.

The ribbon was officially cut Wednesday morning outside the home, which underwent extensive renovation in the past nine months. The residents were selected by the Rescue Mission, which operates a men’s shelter and provides other services just a block away.

“It’s so exciting to see the work these men have done on their lives, how they’re really taken control of their lives, established incomes and become very self-sufficient,” Rescue Mission CEO Alan Thornton said.  “We’re really excited to be celebrating that with them today.”

Ed, Frank and Pat actually moved in Aug. 28, and welcomed about 70 guests to their open house after Wednesday’s brief ceremony under a sweltering sun. The first floor has a good-size living room, dining room and a kitchen that leads out onto a back deck, complete with a grill.

Pat led me on a tour of the upstairs, where each man has his own bedroom. He said the three have known each other for a while and get along well, despite the “nuances” each brings to the group.

Pat, one of the residents, shows visitors the backyard deck.

Pat, one of the residents, shows visitors the backyard deck.

Inside and out, the place looks nothing like it did earlier this year. Flowers bloom out front, and grass seed waits to take hold in dirt that once was strewn with syringes. As one speaker said, the structure has been transformed from “an eyesore to an asset.”

I had the privilege of helping to restore the house on two visits with co-workers from Upstate Medical University, in April and again in June. We cleaned up the yard, hauled old roofing material to the trash, power-washed the exterior, swept floors, painted doors and more.

On our first visit, the amount of work needed seemed insurmountable and I wondered why the house hadn’t been torn down. But at the end of six hours or so, we made enough progress to be encouraged. On the second visit, it felt like the renovation was in the home stretch.

All the while, the overriding feeling was that it would take an incredible amount of work by a lot of people to make the house into anything that could be lived in.

It’s more than that. It’s home.

Rescue Mission of Syracuse

The house under renovation in April.


Posted in Homeless, Irish Investigations, Volunteering | Tagged , , , , , | 7 Comments

Meet the young man behind ‘A Tiny Home for Good’

Andrew Lunetta stands in front of one of the vacant lots where his organization, "A Tiny Home for Good," plans to build residential units for the homeless in Syracuse, NY.

Andrew Lunetta in front of a vacant lot where his organization, “A Tiny Home for Good,” plans to build residences for the homeless. The proposal has been delayed while it awaits action by Onondaga County, which owns the land.

Andrew Lunetta is devoting his abundant energy to building “tiny homes” for the homeless in Syracuse, NY.

“For some reason, the homeless population really called to me,” Andrew said. “They’re the poorest of the poor. The most forgotten of the forgotten.”

The logistics of making these tiny homes a reality are complicated. But his philosophy isn’t: If we’re able to help others in need, we should do it.

A survey last year counted 68 chronically homeless individuals in Syracuse. Andrew’s response? In the next five years, let’s build 68 safe environments for them.


Andrew Lunetta

Andrew Lunetta

Andrew’s organization, “A Tiny Home for Good,” wants to build six 250-square-foot “tiny homes” in two city neighborhoods a couple of miles apart. That’s six homeless people who could be indoors before winter.

But the proposals have hit a snag or two.

Onondaga County owns the land where “A Tiny Home for Good” wants to put four units, and would have to agree to transfer the property.

Andrew hoped the county legislature would discuss the tiny homes proposal at its monthly meeting Tuesday (Sept. 1), but he was told it won’t be brought up. The legislature previously delayed a decision and is doing so again because of “community pushback,” Andrew said.

County legislator Monica Williams, whose district includes the vacant lots, couldn’t be reached for comment Monday afternoon.

Now the other “Tiny Home” site, where two units are planned, may be delayed as well.

Two homes are framed and ready to be moved from a warehouse onto the site as soon as a billboard is removed. But now the company that owns the lot has more questions, Andrew said.

“Since the city or county wasn’t involved, I thought the process would be smoother,” he said.

Time is running short, and a lot has to be done — soon — if the tiny homes are to be up and inhabited before winter.

Andrew’s approach is a calm blend of idealism and realism, but the delays have him frustrated.

While he waits for things to play out with the two parcels, he’s looking for other vacant properties in Syracuse that would be suitable for tiny homes. (Contact him via the “A Tiny Home for Good” site.)

Just 25, Andrew has devoted the past several years to helping the homeless and underserved in Syracuse. He worked the late shift at a men’s shelter for two-plus years, and is on the board of the Brady Faith Center ministries.

Four years ago at the Brady Center, Andrew started the “Pedal to Possibilities” bicycling program for community members as well as the homeless. Three mornings a week, a group rides up to 10 miles through Syracuse. The rides provide exercise, socialization and empowerment.

But to tackle homelessness effectively, Andrew believes in the “housing first” approach championed by the National Alliance to End Homelessness.

The idea is to provide a safe living environment, and follow it up with an umbrella of services — case managers, physical and mental health evaluations and treatment, clothing and job training. It’s working in other cities, and Andrew insists Syracuse has enough resources, financial and otherwise, to succeed.

Government agencies, not-for-profit organizations and individuals can all do their part, Andrew said.

“There are so many faith-based communities that can cover the bases,” he said. “People can check in on the residents, and see how to help once they’re housed.”

Maria Sweeney, a Syracuse advocate who runs Maria’s Outreach, says Andrew’s tiny homes plan reflects his compassion and his innovative ideas to solve the problem of homelessness in the community.

“A Tiny Home for Good not only provides housing, but also fosters a sense of dignity and respect,” Maria said. “Andrew is an amazing leader.”

Andrew has felt the pull to help others for a long time. After high school, he joined City Year and worked with kids in a school in Cleveland. Then he earned a bachelor’s degree in Peace and Global Studies from LeMoyne College and a master’s degree in Public Administration from Syracuse University.

He’s putting all that to work on the streets of Syracuse, where he can directly help the people he most wants to serve.

The poorest of the poor, the most forgotten of the forgotten.

Posted in Homeless, Irish Investigations, poverty | Tagged , , , , , , | 17 Comments

An exceptional man and his journey: Exhibit B

James. June 1, 2014.

James. June 1, 2014.

Yesterday I gave an update on Brian D’Apice and his 10,000-mile Bicycle Around America solo trek for charity.

Today brings the tale of another exceptional man on a very different journey.

Here in Central New York, my homeless friend James pushes a shopping cart several miles a day.

James, 49, is a survivor and a loner.

He sleeps on a bench under some trees, between the county justice center and a building designed by renowned architect I.M. Pei to house art.

A couple of weeks ago while James slept, someone stole his shopping cart. It held everything he owned except what he was wearing. James also relied on it to transport the returnable bottles and cans he redeems for a nickel apiece.

Ever resourceful, James obtained a wheeled trash toter, but it was hard to maneuver and he didn’t go far with it. Collecting returnables was difficult.

James’ informal network of supporters stepped up. They brought him clothes, gift cards, sneakers — and a replacement shopping cart.

The cart came about when a colleague of mine told a grocery store manager about James’ situation. The next day, she and her husband picked up a well-used but very functional cart.

James is back in business, making his daily rounds pushing the cart through Syracuse. His life, his journey, play out in an area no larger than a few square miles.

For a closer look at James, check out this fine video by Kevin Rivoli, a photojournalist with The Post-Standard newspaper in Syracuse.

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

An exceptional man and his journey: Exhibit A

Brian D'Apice at Mount Rushmore on July 26.

Brian D’Apice at Mount Rushmore on July 26.

This is the first of two updates on a pair of exceptional men I admire, and the vastly different journeys they are on.

I’ve written here before about Brian D’Apice and his 10,000-mile solo bicycle ride for charity. Many readers have asked to be kept informed about how he’s doing. (An update on the second exceptional man and his journey will soon follow.)

Brian, 30, is nearing the West Coast on his Bicycle Around America trek that began May 4 in New York City. He has pedaled 4,000 miles across almost 20 states. He left Missoula, Montana Thursday en route to Spokane, Wash.

Brian is faring quite well, remains upbeat and has encountered far more kindness and appreciation than hardship. Perhaps the worst thing he’s faced, other than steep hill climbs, rain and headwinds, is the occasional middle-finger “salute” from motorists.

(Wouldn’t you just love to tell those idiots that the guy they just flipped off is a U.S. Army veteran giving up a year of his life to ride a bicycle 10,000 miles to help military families and children living in poverty?)

I’ve said this before, but it’s impossible to be around Brian and not feel inspired, uplifted and encouraged about young people and the future. He’s the real deal. His parents did a helluva job.

Learn more about Brian and his efforts. If you’re so inclined, lend him a hand — he’d appreciate any offer of kindness: a jar of peanut butter, a gift card, a place to stay, a donation to one of the charities he’s devoting a year of his life to helping.

If you’d like a positive and thoughtful look at life and why we’re here, check out his blog.

Here’s a sample from his most recent post:

“Part of me enjoys the challenges and discomfort—it makes me feel closer to the people I am helping. It seems that in the most trying times I feel the most purpose in my life. It’s invigorating, which is exactly what I need to push through the task at hand. I also enjoy challenges because they give me the opportunity to grow.

“I recognize that overcoming the numerous trials I’ve faced in the past has only made me a stronger person today, so I welcome whatever experiences I will face in the future, knowing that they will only teach me more about myself and the world around me.”

Posted in Travel, Volunteering | Tagged , , , , , , , | 8 Comments

The enduring power of imagination: Bedtime story, 1997

In my basement today I found a copy of a newspaper column I wrote in April 1997. I am reprising it here, with edits, for my three sons — now 27, 24 and 22.

The allure of the mud — if not the mud itself — had worn off my three boys by early afternoon Sunday, a cold, raw day.

We went inside, where a raucous game of “wall ball” ensued in the family room. I searched for a less destructive activity. In the corner amid a stack of cassette tapes, I found an old favorite, “Best-Loved Stories Told at the National Storytelling Festival,” which I hadn’t played for them in quite a while.

Because my two oldest sons are 8 and 6, I knew their memories of the stories would be incomplete. The 4-year-old wouldn’t remember them at all.

So I broke out the milk and cookies and had them sit down and listen to four of my favorites. All the stories were recorded at the National Storytelling Festival in Jonesborough, Tenn., sometime before 1991.

My boys must have thought it strange, as they listened in utter silence, to see me laughing and wiping tears from my eyes at the same time.

Compressed in these four tales are invaluable lessons of love and pain, forgiveness and acceptance, life and death.

“Flowers and Freckle Cream” by Elizabeth Ellis deals with a 12-year-old girl’s painful self-consciousness about her looks. Jay O’Callahan’s “Orange Cheeks” is a joyous celebration of a 6-year-old boy’s relationship with his wise grandmother. “A Friend of My Father” by Maggi Kerr Peirce is a hilarious and poignant tale of life and death in Ireland. And Steve Sanfield’s “Could This Be Paradise?” is a clever parable about the grass always being greener on the other side.

The boys laughed at the funny parts, of course, and the two older ones seemed to be figuring out how to react to the painful parts.

That night at bedtime, my 6-year-old asked if they could hear an original story.

I said OK, but they had to help me create it. I ripped a sheet of paper into tiny squares and wrote a story element on each — “a color,” “a problem to solve,” “a boy’s name,” “a girl’s name,” “a cool place,” and so on.

I folded the scraps and put them into my oldest son’s Seattle Mariners baseball cap, and had each boy pick one without peeking. Because it was his idea, the 6-year-old went first and chose “a problem to solve”  . . . “Rats eating clothes!” he said. (Oh, boy.)

The 8-year-old had to come up with a boy’s name: “Eberhard.” (Whose idea was this, anyway?) The 4-year-old, who picked “a cool place,” looked at me with his bright green eyes and said, “California.” (This one’s going to be trouble.)

The story I came up with wasn’t all that compelling, and may have contributed to the 4-year-old’s bad dreams that night.

It was the heroic tale of Eberhard Smithfield III, who lived in a mansion overlooking the Pacific Ocean. With the help of Madeline the Maid, Eberhard figured out that a raccoon that had been wreaking havoc in the Smithfield mansion’s laundry room had found its way in by climbing through the clothes dryer vent.

(I know it was supposed to be a rat, but how could I send them off to never-never land with images of a disease-carrying rodent in their heads? Raccoons aren’t much better, but at least they’re cuter).

Now, a bedtime story isn’t complete without a moral, but I didn’t figure this one out until I was finished: Keep it short. (My 6-year-old fell asleep during the telling.) Or maybe I should just put in the cassette tape and let the pros handle it.

The greater lesson, of course, is that stories have incredible power — the power to help children laugh and think and feel, to use their imaginations, to figure out how to cope with their small world and the more harrowing grownup world to follow.

In the end, it doesn’t matter if the stories come from a professional on a stage, or from a rank amateur sitting on the floor of a dark, quiet bedroom.

According to the National Storytelling Festival schedule for 2015, Jay O’Callahan is a featured teller. (“Thank you, Grandma!”)

Posted in Children, Irish Investigations, stories | Tagged , , , , , , , | 13 Comments

In Syracuse, NY, why do we accept mediocrity?

A busy intersection in Syracuse, NY. Faded pavement stripes and signage lead to driver confusion -- and frustration.

BEFORE: Faded pavement stripes led to driver confusion — and anger — for years.

It took way too long for a frustrating, often dangerous traffic situation in Syracuse, NY, to be remedied.

What did it take?

Two e-mail exchanges, three years apart.

How the solution came about is not as important as what the long-standing problem really symbolizes — a struggling city’s low self-esteem, pervasive apathy and chronic acceptance of mediocrity.

For the past seven years I’ve driven through and walked across a particularly busy intersection a dozen times a week. Harrison-at-Almond is a major connector to hospitals and universities, and is at the foot of a ramp to a highway.

The striping on the pavement of the five northbound lanes faded at least three years ago.

I saw regular incidents of driver confusion, frustration and road rage. Because of ambiguous overhead signs and a lack of paint to clarify lanes and directions, some drivers in the middle lane who had a green light thought the adjacent red turn signal was for them.

So they sat there. And held people up behind them, resulting in horns, shouts and dangerous maneuvering to get around them.

This went on for years, until last week when . . . an e-mail was forwarded.

In 2012, I wrote to the state transportation department about the intersection. The overhead signs and signal heads had recently been re-positioned, but the problem persisted because the lanes weren’t clearly striped. There was a misunderstanding over whose responsibility it was to paint the lanes. Nothing was done.

After that, I did what everyone else did — nothing — except shake my head every time I saw the same scenario of frustration unfold.

Two weeks ago, I decided to revisit the issue and e-mailed the state. A state traffic engineer wrote back and copied a city traffic engineer on the e-mail. After a followup from me, the city acknowledged it was responsible for striping the lanes.

The work was done in less than a day. (The “after” photo is below.)

I’m not pointing the finger at government entities as much as I am at those who live, work, drive and walk near that intersection. I include myself among those I’m disappointed in, since I gave up in 2012 after just one inquiry.

Thousands of other motorists and pedestrians endured that potentially dangerous situation for 1,000 days or more. (The crosswalk paint was basically invisible, and that’s been re-striped as well.)

Unless someone can show me that the city or state ignored years’ worth of complaints about this intersection, I’ll assume no one else bothered to say anything.

Sure, Syracuse has more important things to worry about (see the New York Times “Spike Nation” story about our synthetic marijuana problem). And yes, there are bright spots, energetic residents and business owners who are doing their best to revive a once-thriving place to live and work.

But the Harrison-at-Almond intersection is a clear example that we’ve come to accept here as the norm — an inconvenient, frustrating and unsafe situation that’s easily remedied.

So look around where you live. Are there teeth-rattling potholes, eyesore buildings, litter-strewn roads? Are you dealing with sleazy slumlords, surly parking lot attendants, incompetent contractors?

Don’t expect anything to change on its own. Call or write whoever you have to. And don’t wait three years to follow up, as I did.

The same intersection in Syracuse, re-striped.

AFTER: The same intersection in Syracuse, re-striped.

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