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This is Bill, or Muhammad, and His Beautiful Dog…

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 “Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.”
― Søren Kierkegaard

As I exited the subway station today after work today I saw Bill and his dog crossing the street. I thought I knew most eccentrics in the neighborhood but had never seen him before. Both of them–he and his dog–walked in a graceful manner as they crossed the street. So as I approached them I asked if I could take their photo, to which he replied a matter of factly, “Sure, why not?” When asked his name he told me it was “Bill or Muhammad,” whichever I preferred. He used them both but not at the same time. He told me his dog’s name but it really long and one I cannot remember. I asked if he were Muslim, and he said, yes and that it saved his life about 20 years ago. I also asked him about the iPhone hanging around his neck…the camera was open and facing outward (see below), I could see myself as I spoke to him. “Oh that,” he replied, “I just like the world to reflect back on people.” We talked for a few more minutes and then we parted. But before we did, I commented that a lot of people must say that he looks like Abraham Lincoln. He responded plainly, “It must be the hat.”

Urban Simplicity.

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This is Rich.

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Share with the Lord’s people who are in need. Practice hospitality.”

~Romans 12:13 


This is Rich. Even before he asked me the question I knew that he would. I could tell the way he surveyed the parking lot as I walked up to the coffee shop. And as suspected, when I got close enough he solicited me for change. But I’m jumping ahead.

I walked to the coffee shop today instead of riding my bike…a night of sloppy, heavy snow has made the streets also sloppy. So I walked. This is the time of year when the incessant grey starts to bring me down. And as I walked I was thinking about a class in which I am currently enrolled, Western Civilization and Human Progress. This is why I was heading to the coffee shop, to do some work. In the class right now we are discussing whether we as humans have actually made any progress by comparing some events to those of the Middle Ages, and also reading texts such as the Bible and the Confessions of St. Augustine. This is what was going through my head as I approached the parking lot.


Anyhow, as I approached Rich, even before he asked me, I noticed the cross dangling prominently from his neck. Someone from St. Luke’s Mission of Mercy gave it to him, he told me, sometimes he sleeps there. It was a nice cross. As we talked I found out that Rich hasn’t worked “in a while” because of a bad back, a broken knee, and colon cancer. 

He wanted money for a coffee. I actually thought about inviting him in and purchasing his coffee but didn’t for a couple reasons. The first being that I had my laptop and books with me and needed to get work done, and the second is that Rich told me he wanted the money for coffee across the street because he’s not allowed in this shop. So I gave him one of the two dollars in my wallet then asked if I could take his photo. Straightening up the best he could, he said sure and had a twinkle in his eye. After talking some more he asked me for another dollar, so I gave him the remaining one in my wallet (I knew that I had plenty of credit on my phone app for the coffee shop).


So did Rich use the money for coffee? I don’t know, I hope so, but maybe not. Maybe he used it for alcohol (though he was sober when I talked to him), and I’ll likely be spending money on alcohol for myself this evening. My point is this…I saw this guy who needed a couple bucks and I had a couple bucks. Giving them away probably helped him more than it hurt me. No one aspires to grow up and be homeless. I can’t imagine how degrading it must feel to ask strangers for money. And I’ll be honest, talking with Rich today was a really nice conversation, we were just two humans talking on a grey snowy day in the parking lot of a coffee shop. I hope he stays warm and safe.


Urban Simplicity

A bag is a bag is a bag…

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Bags. Maybe it’s finally time for men to start carrying them. And not just to work. A bag to the coffee shop. To the bar. To the ballgame and the cage-fighting extravaganza and a bag to the monster truck show.

~Douglas J. Brown

File this post under “every day things.” I’ve been a “bag guy” pretty much my entire life; I’ve carried some sort of bag since my teens. Be it a backpack, briefcase, shoulder bag, or camera bag, I often have one with me. I don’t think much of it until every once in a while someone references it as a purse, or even worse, a “man-bag.” To me it’s just a bag. Anyhow, someone at a coffee shop this morning referred to it as such…”don’t forget your man-bag.” All I could do is smile. But then as I sat there I started thinking how it–and its contents–are really representative of me, or at least a slice of my daily life and things that interest me. One of the bags that I often carry these days is a small messenger bag which is designed specifically to hold a mirrorless camera (among other things), it’s this one. And when I sat there looking at it, it really was like looking at a day in my life through it’s contents, it contained the following…a camera, an extra lens, a journal, a pen and pencil for writing and drawing in the journal, a pocket-sized New Testament with psalms and proverbs, a slim book on mindfulness, an extra battery for the camera (wrapped in plastic), a culinary memoir, which I am reading for a class I am currently enrolled, and a rain pouch for the bag in the event weather turnes foul while on a bike. What’s in your bag?

Matters at Hand (a New Year Reflection)

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“Fork in the Road”

“Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”
~ Matthew 18:3

So here it is, the first day of the new year. So much anticipation. The above bible verse came to me last evening while contemplating the prospects of all the possibilities of the new year ahead, like a blank page waiting to be written. A clean slate.

I personally have found that in order to make changes in my life I not only have to make changes in my habits but also myself as well. Like the old Buddhist saying goes, “change comes from within.”

The above passage is interesting to me for a number of reasons, especially when thought of in metaphorical terms (which is basically how I treat most of the bible). This said, let’s look at this in a sort of deconstruction, or in sections.

In the first portion of the passage Jesus tells his disciples that unless they change, they cannot enter the kingdom of heaven. This is from the New International Version, but in other versions the word “change” may be translated as “turn around” or “convert.” Interestingly, the word repent comes from Greek and one of it’s means is to “turn around” or to “change one’s way of thinking.” I bring this up to counter the negative connotations the word repent often conjures. And also (along these same lines) when John was in the desert baptizing and preaching he would cry out, “Repent, for the kingdom is at hand” (Matthew 3:2). This is also one of the first quotes of Jesus when he began his public ministry (Matthew 4:17). Think about this sentence in this way… Repent (think differently or change your ways) because the kingdom is at hand (or the kingdom is right in front of you). This is spelled out explicitly in the Gospel of Thomas (saying 113), “the kingdom of the father is spread out over the earth, and people do not see it.

So then, how do we do this? How do we see/enter the kingdom in this life? Well, we are told clearly to “become like little children.” But what does that mean? Are we supposed to act like imbeciles or babies? No, I don’t think so. I’ll give my thoughts on what this means with a brief story.

Recently I was at the local Jewish Community Center where I swim. I had just arrived and was locking up my bike when a father and his young daughter exited the building. It was snowing big fat flakes; they slowly cascaded down to earth. Upon seeing this, the young girl spreads her arms wide, lifts her face skyward and shrieks, “Daddy, it’s snowing.” She then stuck out her tongue and gleefully caught flakes on it as the walked. The father, seeing me, sighed in a low voice, “Yes, it is snowing…again.” The difference is obvious. The young girl was so excited and in awe that in some ways she was experiencing her own slice of heaven right there in the JCC parking lot. Her father, on the other hand, was not; he was miserable.

So my thought on this is that if we change (mostly our thinking) then we too can have what the little girl had, or at least glimpses of it. What the bible passage is saying, I believe, is that we should attempt to be in awe of everyday events, everyday miracles. When we were children everything was new and interesting and innocent, but then somewhere along the way as we grew into adults we began acting like adults, stifling our sense of awe in the everyday activities. When I think about it, I feel as though I should be in awe at the very fact that I awake every morning, at the miracle of this living body that I currently inhabit.

This year I want to return to awe, that sense of innocence. It will not be easy, and it will take work and conscious effort, but I do think it is possible. This, after all, is what we’ve been told for more than two millennia. Even longer if you look at other traditions. To put this in Buddhist terms, this could be compared to being present, or mindful; seeing and appreciating what is right in front of us at this very moment. Walking the middle path. After all, the past is history and the future is just a dream at this point. All we have is the moment in which we live. All we have is now.

Lake Effect!

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Snowflakes are one of nature’s most fragile things, but just look what they can do when they stick together.”
― Vesta M. Kelly

 So the other day it snowed. Hard. Lake effect snow. I had the day off so I went for a walk and took a few pictures. If you have never been to the east of any of the Great Lakes during the winter, or you are not familiar with the term “lake effect,” this page can explain it. Anyhow, click any picture for a slightly larger image.

Urban Simplicity.

Discourse on the Concourse (on Christmas Day)

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“Every one of us is, in the cosmic perspective, precious. If a human disagrees with you, let him live. In a hundred billion galaxies, you will not find another.” ~ Carl Sagan

I had just arrived at the subway station, the UB South Campus Station (University at Buffalo). It was the evening of Christmas Day, I was on my way home from one of my sister’s house and was surprised how many people were in the station. I had never taken public transport on Christmas, at least not since I was a little kid when our entire family used it. But I’m jumping ahead, here’s a bit of the back story.

A few weeks ago I reserved a ZipCar which was close to where I live, just a couple blocks away. I needed the car because my sister lives about 25 miles from me. Then, on the morning of Christmas Eve, I was awakened by the buzz of my cellphone, I had gotten a text. Looking at it I see that because of “unexpected circumstances” they had changed my reservation. Now, instead of the reserved car being just a couple blocks from my house, the new car was in a parking lot at UB South Campus, about 6 miles from my house. I called ZipCar but to no avail; the car I had originally reserved had a problem and, being a holiday, the only available car was at the new location. On the way to my sister’s house, my son gave me a lift to the car, but returning the car that evening I had to take the subway the remainder of the way. This is how I found myself at the UB South Campus station on the evening of Christmas Day.

So there I was, standing at the ticket machine fumbling for my wallet with two pizza pans and a bag of Christmas cookies under one arm. Then I heard him, and he was a bit too close, I didn’t see him walk up, “Excuse me sir, can I have a dollar?” No, I told him, as I slid a dollar into the slot of the machine; it was wrinkled and the machine spit it back out. “Please,” he pleaded, “it’s Christmas.” Still without looking at him as I was fumbling with the machine, I simply said no, that I couldn’t. The dollar was refused again. I knew what I had in my wallet, a $20 and two singles. The subway cost $2 so I needed the two singles, and I wasn’t going to give away my only $20 even on Christmas. The irony, I suppose, is that I couldn’t get the singles “to work,” at least not the wrinkled one.

“Do you believe in Jesus,” the man now asked? What, I questioned, as the first wrinkled bill was finally accepted. He repeated it again. It’s complicated, I told him. So he asked again, “Sir, do you believe in Jesus?” Now, frustrated, but at the same time the second bill was accepted into the machine and my ticket administered to me, I finally looked at him and snapped, Yes I believe in Jesus for Christ’ sake, and I realized how silly that sounded as the words left my mouth.

When I looked at him I was astounded. He was cold, that’s for sure, but he was also younger than his appearance seemed. He looked tired. He looked old. It showed in his eyes the most. If you’ve been to this blog before you know that I am not immune to giving money to the poor and homeless, even a $20 on a rare occasion, but I knew that giving this guy money would only be feeding his habit, whatever that was. Now facing each other, he pleaded again, “Mister, I am cold and hungry, can’t you please give me some money. It’s Christmas.” He was pulling at my heart strings and he knew it. So many biblical passages were going through my head regarding helping the poor, but still I couldn’t do it. Look, I finally told him, I am not going to give you any money, and I am really sorry. I could still hear him pleading as I descended the escalator to the subway platform.

When the train arrived I was surprised how warm it was inside, I was cold, but now thankful. There was a mother and young daughter sitting across from my. The girl was snuggled into her mother with her baby doll, likely a Christmas gift, I thought. The mother and daughter looked so content I would have liked to take their picture. And as the subway rumbled along I couldn’t help but think of the various worlds we all inhabit. A half-hour earlier I was safely ensconced in my sister’s warm home in a Rockwellesque Christmas setting, then my world collided with the young desperate man at the station. Different worlds, I thought. One is not better than the other (maybe more appealing, but not “better”). And then there was the mother and daughter across from me. When I looked at them I felt peace. Christmas peace. I could have ridden the subway all night. But my stop came a few minutes later, and I was once again thrust out into the cold blustery night. As I leaned into the sharp wind on my short walk home I wondered where that man would sleep tonight. I also wondered if I shouldn’t have given him some money.

When I arrived home I shivered as my two dogs greeted me as if I were gone for weeks. There were a few glowing embers left in the wood stove so I put a log on them. As the first flames licked at the log, I looked around at my humble little and disheveled home, and I felt grateful. And as I watched the fire grow and could feel it’s warmth, I pet my dogs and said a prayer for the man I met, but the prayer then became directed at all of us. 

The Future is Unwritten

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John Graham Mellor (Joe Strummer)

21 August 1952 – 22 December 2002 

Fifteen years ago today Joe Strummer made his sudden and untimely transition. His words and music have had, and still, have, a huge impact on my life. I took the below photo in the spring of 2012 (I think). It was a mural on the side of a bar, Niagara, at the corner of East 7th and Avenue A in NYC’s East Village. In 2003 graffiti artists Zephyr and Dr. Revolt paid homage to Joe a few months after his death. Someone told me that they came back every year to touch it up. But then, a few years ago, the wall had to be repaired so it was removed, much to the dismay of pretty much everyone. Since then there is a new version of it up, though I still prefer the original which is pictured. Anyhow, at the bottom of this post is a truly moving video of the artists painting the mural while Joe Strummer sings his rendition of Redemption song as a backdrop. What is interesting is that at one point, towards the beginning, the filmmaker puts a clip of Joe Strummer in the crowd as if he was watching it being painted. Anyhow, if you have a few minutes I hope you’ll watch it. The music alone is worth the watch, but seeing the faces of the people watching is really moving. Turn it up.

http://4.bp.blogspot.com/-GL_gXSOhuwA/UWNrDzx_LlI/AAAAAAAANCA/wtpZApCvGI4/s1600/Joe+Strummer+(small).jpg

“And so now I’d like to say – people can change anything they want to. And that means everything in the world. People are running about following their little tracks – I am one of them. But we’ve all got to stop just following our own little mouse trail. People can do anything – this is something that I’m beginning to learn. People are out there doing bad things to each other. That’s because they’ve been dehumanised. It’s time to take the humanity back into the center of the ring and follow that for a time. Greed, it ain’t going anywhere. They should have that in a big billboard across Times Square. Without people you’re nothing. That’s my spiel.”

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“Authority is supposedly grounded in wisdom, but I could see from a very early age that authority was only a system of control and it didn’t have any inherent wisdom. I quickly realised that you either became a power or you were crushed”

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“The future is unwritten.”

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“Nothing in the world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not. There is nothing more common then unsuccessful men with talent. Genius will not. Unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not. The world if full of educated derelicts. Persistence and Determination alone are Omnipotent.”

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“Everybody has a story to tell.”

More in the Five Quotes series.

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