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What Goeth Before The Falls?

Niagara Falls is this gorgeous wonder and with some very dark shadows. My first memory of it was riding in a car with a guy who, in retrospect, may have had a thing for me but I was so young and naive and unaware of what the signs looked like. I was 18. He was a nice guy. We were working on a group project, and then he took me to the Falls. He was showing me, the out-of-towner, around his home area. If memory serves me right, he was from Tonawanda. We walk to the edge. Wow. It’s beautiful. It’s normal to him, almost blase. I can tell the whole site is packaged to be an experience, and this is barely notable from the many that make up my first year of adulthood.

Niagara Falls exists on the edge of the eponymous city and as one piece of the backdrop of people’s lives. For instance: Friday morning, I was talking to two of my neighbors. One was taking a group of students to see the Falls, and she said, “I’m going on the Maid of the Mist for the first time!” As far as I know, she’s lived in Buffalo for about fifteen years. “I’ve never gone,” my other neighbor replied, Buffalo resident of about 17 years. “Me neither,” I replied. It’s always there. There is no rush. We take Niagara Falls for granted.

To get to Niagara Falls from the northern part of Buffalo, you drive through rural areas and then industrial ones. So much of urban Buffalo is industrial, Tonawanda has enough to keep some local environmental activists fairly busy, but the northern suburbs are otherwise sparse for smokestacks. Not the city of Niagara Falls. You pass through chemical industries. You pass by vacant factories. You pass under rows and rows and rows of electrical lines suspended high over a metallic frame. It’s an intense grid; it awes me. And then you pass some gorgeous residential houses and to a park and park your car. You walk. And there she is. The Falls. She’s rightfully considered a wonder.

Niagara Falls, for me, has always had an aura of melancholy. It’s been a long time since it looked natural. Seeing the skyline of the Canadian city in my American photos gives it a sense of being manipulated almost to being more akin to a man-made water feature next to a tourist trap. Yet I drive through the city itself with the same recurring thought, despite the chemical industry, when I see the parts where people live, when I engage with the vibrant and wonderful community of people who live there: I could live here. I won’t. My life and heart is in the city of Buffalo.

I feel the same way looking at Niagara Falls as I do standing on the pier at my beloved Onondaga Lake, looking at the Syracuse skyline. This is supposed to be different. The pollution, the development, and subtle signs of political and economic failure are the inheritances that I received from the previous generation. Maybe I feel darkly drawn to Niagara Falls because those elements of the city and natural wonder remind me of home.

There is more, though. Niagara Falls is a magnet for both tourists and darkness. I never forgot the 1998 This American Life on Niagara Falls, the 101st episode, where they interviewed a man whose job it was to recover the bodies of the jumpers. He inherited the job, in a way: his dad did it too. There are other stories about people in Niagara Falls, and they are the stories of those who lived their lives. You can live a very ordinary life next to a natural wonder. That could be Syracuse, but Syracuse didn’t have anyone driving boats through the river, expecting to find bodies of suicide victims.

Niagara Falls attracts daredevils. Erendira Wallenda did an acrobatic routine over the Falls on Thursday morning. I watched it live, before a meeting, it was brief and I have two monitors though my tasks that morning only needed one. It seems so quaint, those sorts of stunts now, in a world where we have so much technology and so much knowledge, to thrill by doing a thing like that. I don’t know, like I’ve been disconnected from the impossibility of physical stunts. Whatever. She did a thing I’m sure not capable of doing; good for her. I watched it unafraid of Wallenda falling to her death because she had a waist harness on (thanks, NY State law!). It was a safe spectacle, in a way. I remember that in the circuses of the day, the thrill seekers were risking death. Death claims us all, but what a privilege to be watching someone else tempt it. What a different set of life circumstances to make the various sides of the coin make sense to the people sitting on them.

Do you know how many people have tried to go over the Falls? I didn’t, so I consulted Wikipedia. I can barely keep the idea in my head that someone was so risky with their life as to try to go over the falls in a barrel or other object, with only hope or confidence to get to the other side? I do not think of it often, the way I avoid thinking of disturbing facets of society. I am so careful with the fact I am living, I cannot fathom such an act as climbing into a barrel and waiting to hit the rocks. The first person, Annie Taylor, apparently expected her trip to lead to fame and fortune and instead died in poverty. Comfortable people do not generally take great risks. Does that human tug to belong somewhere pull some towards the lore of daredevils? I am the wrong person to consult.

It’s not a relic of a bygone era, either. Someone tried a couple months ago. Kirk Jones went over the falls in 2003, purportedly as a suicide attempt and lived. Last April he tried deliberately in a rubber ball in April.. He did not survive. They found his body June 2nd in Lake Ontario. I wish his family peace and comfort.

I confess I kind of hated reading the coverage of Jones, the most recent article was by a reporter who met him 14 years ago, the day after he went over, as many suicidal people do, and lived, as most suicidal people do not. To paraphrase David Wong, there’s two ways to dehumanize someone: to dismiss them or to idolize them. This article, though describing how humble he was, seemed to idolize that daredevil status, like he is heroic because he died a member of the daredevil class. Maybe I’m too deep in seeing it as a mark of concern. I can track my mental health by how many risk-taking behaviors I am engaging in, relatively mild as they are, so I worry about others. I suppose my unease stemmed in part from my own discomfort with the idea of daredevils, with danger as entertainment, with tempting death at all. Niagara Falls entices desperate impulsive people in the same way that the Golden Gate Bridge does or the Aurora Bridge did prior to the suicide barrier. Why idolize the attempts, to entertain awe at the difficult being done, because it was difficult? I personally do not like idolizing daredevils but it seems really irresponsible to idolize suicide attempts. That article felt a bit too close to the latter. When I lived in Seattle, I’d often think about the people who jumped from the Aurora Bridge when my bus went over it. The view was stunning. The view always is stunning from these places. One of the last suicides from the Aurora Bridge, before the suicide barrier was completed, was by a bright but severely depressed girl who had read extensively about people jumping from bridges. I’ve read in various places that they stopped reporting the suicides from the Golden Gate Bridge to keep from creating a contagion effect.

I wonder if there is a contagion effect to Niagara Falls, daredevils and suicide. I hope not. So many beautiful things in the world coexist with darkness. Life coexists with death. Niagara Falls’ beauty coexists with the fact that it tempts people to do things that can take their lives – be their motivation that explicitly, or the thrill. Every time I look at the Falls, I think about how it could kill me. How we sit with that knowledge and talk about these things most responsibly and respectfully? I do not know.

I will think about it the next time I am staring at the water going over the Falls.

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“And if we’ve come a long way
Then I suspect it’s sideways
Further from our origin
No closer to our destination.”
-Dessa, “Mineshaft”

We want the road we’re walking on to be the one that leads to where we go. Trouble is, we make the road as we walk it. You cannot ask for a map for that which does not exist.

Are you all familiar with Dessa? Even if you’re not into rap, it’s worth your time to go to and look up her lyrics for the poetry. “Mineshaft” is where she introduces herself to you. “The list of things I used to be, is longer than the list of things I am.” She’s largely lamenting herself or things she’s done. The hook is, “I’ve been here before / I know where it goes / It goes down”. I have noticed a few thematic loops in my own life coming full circle. I’m standing in new places feeling like the reflections in the windows are all familiar. I’ve been here before. I’m not so sure where it goes, but I have my suspicions.

Not all movement is progress. Not all motion is forward. You can work towards something with all your heart, and fail. Righteousness does not guarantee success. The universe has no arc, it’s just a myth to reassure us. I’m not knocking it – we need all the reassurance we can get. History is largely a list of all the times we were nasty to each other. That’s what makes this hard.

Rev. Alison Miller said, in an episode of the VUU (may the puns never end), a lot of stuff, but one idea that stayed with me is that leadership now is a matter of who you choose to follow. She was describing how white people need to pay attention to people of color and how people in power need to draw their gaze towards the marginalized. It’s wise advice. If you are going to take someone else’s directions, best to see what their road looked like for them. If it is completely uncharted territory, sharpen your compass, make sure you don’t lose sight of that horizon.

I confess: I don’t trust the narrative of “resistance”. I don’t trust those who enthusiastically embrace the identity. It’s like when someone identifies their self as being a good person in a social media bio – really? Since when was that for you to decide? All of this seems more like it should be a matter of show and not tell. I can string a few convincing sentences together too. I can declare commitments. It is all about the follow-through. It is about what you do about what you see.

I stepped back from the fight but didn’t leave the ring. You’ll find me leaning on the ropes, watching the punches everyone else is throwing. Cowardly? Maybe? Bets are looking like they’d make better hedges lately, at least with the landscape in front of me. I don’t fight just to bleed, I don’t pick roses for their thorns, and my efforts towards social change were feeling that way. Picking fights for the sake of demonstrating I’m willing to do it. Risking a (metaphoric) punch to show I can wear the bruises. I went along because others said it was the right path to the destination I seek, but you know? It took time to admit it to myself, because getting there mattered so much to me, but I didn’t trust them. Reasons. Is it me? Is it them? Reasons. I’m walking on my own. That is a recipe for failure too. There’s few guides where I am trying to go. Time to be brave. Time to be wise. Time to be ready to reconcile how bravery and wisdom have conflicting pre-requisites.

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We talk about a “Renaissance”

For fun, I’ve compiled a non-exhaustive list of the times The Buffalo News and other outlets used the idea of “renaissance” as applied to Buffalo as a thing happening or a belief to be contended with. In some cases it was in reference to a smaller industry outside the arts, but more often the entire city. Whether Buffalo actually has been in the midst of a renaissance is up for debate. That we speak and often believe that we are is not. For your viewing pleasure:


The Buffalo News – Mostly cheerleading, some are skeptical

Buffalo’s development renaissance keeps rolling right along

Washington Post extols Buffalo’s renaissance

Expats to Repats: Lured away by nicer weather, lured back by Buffalo's renaissance

The Public – Notably, these are much more skeptical.


WKBW – Largely development stories


Major projects show Buffalo’s progression

Construction begins on downtown Japanese- Brew Pub

Hertel Avenue continues to expand

New Canalside development plan released

Pub for bicyclists pedaling new life into Buffalo

Gov., Lt. Gov. Cuomo & Hochul take oath of office in Buffalo

Report: race is still a factor in Buffalo’s new prosperity

Buffalo experiencing a distillery boom

WGRZ – Must have made an editorial decision towards skepticism, so many fewer articles! One mentions the “so-called renaissance”.

WBFO Ultimate skepticism award goes to our local NPR affiliate. Many more discussions of racial and economic disparity.

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Every year I do “One Word“. This year: “steady“. First: I hate reading things I wrote in the past. I wrote that I wanted to be akin to a kayak in the wind. Really, Chris, you wrote that? Anyway. Diagnosis: Success. I am realistic about my commitments and cut down the remaining vestiges of aspirational unreliability. My kids are still alive and healthy enough so I did well there. I slept a lot more, helping to steady my emotions and emotional presentation. I had little sense how the sleep deprivation inherent to having small children unmoored me. I revamped how I organize my life, making me more productive at work. I did the stuff I said I would do. I did not do the stuff I said I would not. I apologized when I was wrong and I resolved my interpersonal debts the best I could. So I leave this year feeling confident that my one-word project had adequate success.

Next year: “sober”. It’s not a goal tied to my relationship to alcohol, though that could stand to be a bit more distant. Sober as in clearheaded. Sober as in serious. Sober as in self-control. Sober as in temperate when encountering discursive intoxicants, designed to distract me from “what is” towards a different, fictitious if easier world. I am not immune to the fear pervading the edges of all my social worlds. I am not immune to intoxicating ideologies reifying the status quo. The gentle lullabies of a comfortable life put me to sleep too. The world, as it is, can be hard to see. The ways it is gray and unresolved can require stamina to coexist with it. The ways it is wrong can take courage to fight. I aim to see what is and engage accordingly. I don’t want to distort the world into what I wish it to be, what makes the most sense to me, or what is the most convenient. I’m not going to tell myself things are OK if they are not. I am going to be brave enough to look what is in the eye without some salve of wishful re-framing.

In 2016 I focused on being consistent. In 2017 I plan to focus on being real. I also resolve to continue trying to be kind and gentle in the process. Life is better that way – mine and hopefully the other people I interact with. I resolve to keep being reliable. I resolve to do better for my community and for my family.

I hope 2017 is a wonderful year for all of you. I appreciate that you choose to take the time to read this blog. Thank you.

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Chalice in my dining room. December 21, 2016. My photo

And every solstice I’m grateful for the longest night because it means the days will get longer.

Buffalo Central Terminal from Memorial Circle. December 21, 2016. My photo.

The last three years I’ve spent a couple hours marking the death of those who died while homeless, in the shadow of Buffalo’s legacy, in a neighborhood emptied of most of its housing. It’s sad. Death is the part of the work that bothers everyone the most, even in a context where effectiveness buoys a lot of hope.

Orchid at my desk. December 21, 2016. My photo.

This orchid began to bloom today, like I needed a reminder to wake up. The year begins anew.

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What the water gave me

Main Street, Buffalo. 12-15-2016. My photo


A foot a snow. That’s what the water gave me.


Scene: a nightmare. The roads suddenly turned to ice and my car careened into a yard. I walked home, walked into the house, looked through a kitchen window that does not exist in real life to see a thunder-snow-induced tornado in the distance. No, no, no. I thought to myself. How will I convince my small children to stay still under a rug in the basement? I scurry them down, try, fail, but the house doesn’t blow away. I run upstairs to the window. The tornado appears to be moving in a direction that isn’t my home. I tell my family that I’ll be back, lace-up my work boots and run downtown to see. I see the damage in the buildings that the tornadoes caused, fire and electricity shooting into the sky. I notice the tornado is heading into the East Side of Buffalo (a very worn and poor part of the city). I cannot see the damage it’s doing to the East Side with the buildings in the way, but I know it is. I lace my boots back up to run home, “I think we’re going to be safe” is what I want to tell the kids, but I’m so afraid that is not actually true. It is still too close. I woke before I arrived.

The fear stayed with me through the day. I feel like I am witnessing terrifying things happening mostly to other people.

Buffalo has a reputation for being snowy, but I am going to let you in on a less-known fact: the south and eastern parts of the city get most of the snow. The suburbs south of Buffalo get a lot. Thanks to a quirk of the city’s orientation to Lake Erie, downtown and neighborhoods of Buffalo that are north, where I work and live, tend to be above the severest parts of the snow band. Not always. I have a foot of snow outside, none of it plowed. So the news tells tales of dramatic accumulation and not infrequently I’ll see blue sky above me and green grass below me, with a dark gray band of doom in the sky to the south. You’ll see the errant car in the Wegmans lot that clearly had the snow brushed off but everything else is dry. Living in the northern part of Buffalo is thus this experience in being a bystander to another area’s weather troubles.  It’s not to say we never get snow. We had a blizzard just today. Northern, Western Buffalo infrequently get the dramatic accumulation Buffalo is known for.

There was a famous storm two years ago, our county executive calls it “Winter Storm Knife” and everyone else calls it Snovember. Some of the region got seven feet. In Northwest Buffalo, we got hardly anything. I remember standing in the sun on the corner of Military Road and Hertel Avenue, staring south into a wall of black. The sky above me was blue. It’s surreal. I feel that way most of the time.

I am heartbroken over the indiscriminate killing in Aleppo and I feel powerless. I am angry over how the election did not represent most American’s ideals and Trump’s fascism and I feel impotent. Professionally, my work makes some inroads, and some people’s lives safer and healthier in regards to a serious social problem in my area, but my labors do not reach much farther. I see many more problems than I can fix. Society is a long game, and its duration exceeds generations. I dream of a better world for my kids discouraged by the one I see, aware of humanity’s tendency to do the same human things. Human history is a long list of people treating each other badly. So far, I’ve been spared.

Of course I could run into the fire. Of course I could go swimming into the undertow trying to save those already there. I could do something for the sake of being able to say I did it, to tell my grandchildren I did the “right” thing, that I was not the bystander to an atrocity. Sometimes it feels as if I these efforts are attempting to move a lake-effect cloud. I am smaller than the wind. I could run into it, but it simply diverts around my body and continues on its present course. Windbreaks must be larger than just me. I could run over to assist with the snow removal, but all I have is a shovel. There’s people with snowblowers. Heck, even plows, like whole automobiles whose only purpose is snow removal. I know if I coordinate with them, in this case, they’ll say stay away. But don’t forget to pay my taxes.

I loathe when people act as if performing concern is some sort of moral obligation. “Why aren’t you saying anything about THIS THING THAT MATTERS MOST TO ME?!” strangers yell at each other across social media, as if what gets banged out in 140 is the entirety of another’s soul. Quiet gets confused for indifference. Don’t get me wrong – the two often co-exist. Policing people’s performance of concern will always result in the target being condemned. The world has yet to run out of incidences of life-or-death concerns, injustices, or suffering. The fact is that, in most cases, me sitting in my living room being sad will do exactly nothing to solve most of the far-off problems, though sadness is a reasonable response. When I was younger, I understood happiness as the absence of sorrow. Slowly, I’d learn more about how enduring awful the world has been and it would stay with me, poisoning all my moments until I learned to compartmentalize. Thank God I learned to compartmentalize. I could not do my current work if I had not. I also learned to reduce the amount of ownership I took of the problems that were literally too big for me, or in another’s responsibility, and to let it be. I’m told these are called “boundaries”. There is utility in being aware and calm in being able to surrender to your limits.

Most of the time we’ll be staring at the metaphoric Lake Effect Cloud dumping snow somewhere else.

Sometimes it’ll be in our own yard.

Know where the snow is.

Know when you’re the person to pull 0ut the shovel.

Know when you’re the person to pay the taxes.

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The Hills and The Choices

by Koan on Morguefile

by Koan on Morguefile

“The more radical activists will always say you’re not doing enough,” My friend, in a letter.

The world is mountains, replete with worthy hills to die on. I’ve but two feet, two arms, and one lifespan. I cannot be everywhere and I cannot do it all.

When I was younger, I felt like I was in the map room, preparing to go into the world. The maps were blank; I was drawing lines anyway, using ink that could wash away if need be, ink that was permanent in some spots. And this was how I made my plans, feeling like I was in some purgatory until one day I just walked out.

I’m on the path now, and all of the hill surrounding me seem like worthwhile ventures, but the fact is you don’t know until you’ve committed. You don’t know from the trail head if it will be worth your time, and sometimes initial steepness is followed by a shallower grade and vice versa. Some lead you to the sky, some lead you to a pit of lava, and some meander forever. How do you know? You don’t. And in the process of creating the map, you are creating the land, the process is reciprocal, and you’ll die on one of these mountains or you’ll die in the woods.

I took a look around my life, my community, and my world and realized I had to make a decision. Control is mostly an illusion, and I certainly can’t predict the future. So I examined the path, my feet, my talents, and my traveling companions to figure out which hill is it that I’ll try to die on.

What is the work that no one but I can do?

What is the work that I can do that most others will not?

What is the work that I can do that absolutely must be done and most others aren’t doing?

I looked into the distance and found my mountains, and prioritized accordingly. It is my fortune that they are mostly in the same range, but not always, and sometimes I must abandon the lower for the higher. I do this willingly and without guilt, because I know as much as I can, and so I am traveling with great purpose.

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