Thinking about a move

I'm discovering that the logistical hurdles of moving across the country can obscure its real-life impact. These days I'm buried deep in a bullet-list dedicated to relocating to Pennsylvania--arranging a mover, finding enough boxes, deciding what to keep and what to give away, and planning final gatherings with my friends. But I need to think beyond my lists.
I'm realizing that the challenge of my new job and finding a place to live can block out the regret of what I 'm leaving behind. What is fresh eclipses what is familiar. And once you leave a place, you can't go back to the way it was before. Moving is like driving a brand-new car off the dealer's lot. That new car, like your old home, won't be the same the instant the tires hit the street. I learned this when I went back to Edinburgh, Scotland a few years ago. The ancient streets and stairways were still there, but my friends were not, and so the city seemed more foreign than I remembered it.
I don't know when I will return to Santa Fe, or what occasion it might be. But I should know that even though the mountains will still be here, along with my memories of climbing them, they won't feel as familiar as they do now.


Reading Lincoln

The gist of Doris Kearns Goodwins' new history, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, is that our 16th president's success was not the result of lucky timing, his melancholic empathy, or an unhappy home life. Instead, she highlights Lincoln's persistent efforts to impress and eventually master all those men he needed to support his cause. For the most part these were men who were more famous, esteemed, and educated than Lincoln--but they never matched his political cleverness.
Lincoln was also ambitious--running (and losing) his first campaign for state legislature at the age of 23. In speeches he was concise, in appearance he was awkward, and in depressive moments he was remote, but in seeking support for his political ambitions, and those of his friends, Lincoln never lacked action and energy. In an age where self-promotional campaigning was unknown, Lincoln sought support through private channels and ensuring that his speeches were printed and circulated in newspapers and pamphlets. Goodwin, like other biographers, quotes his many letters to influential politicians and friends. Here is what he wrote to a potential supporter before his first congressional campaign in 1843. "Now if you should hear any one say that Lincoln don't want to go to Congress, tell him... ...he is mistaken."
History books tend to portray Lincoln as an inevitable 19th century political icon--the self-made, log cabin-born president. They neglect the fact that Lincoln was a political fighter--a ferocious party man who knew just which levers he had to pull to advance his chances for higher office. If Lincoln ran a political campaign in 2006, I think we would do well. He was just that smart about politics.


Newark goes primetime

Finally, people are paying attention to Newark. NJ. Okay, so maybe only until the May 9th mayoral election. But I'm not complaining. Even the New York Times has devoted a blog to this big-top race between 20-year incumbent Sharpe James, and his baldy earnest challenger, Cory Booker. It's just too bad the media treats this city of 280,000 as the delinquent step-son to New York--a broken, corrupted city good for laughs when nothing funny is going down in Brooklyn.
Though everything about me begs the question--I've watched Newark closely since 1998 and know it better than any of the cities I've lived in. Here's what the media coverage of this race is missing:
First, Sharpe James is a former boxer. He plays with the press like a heavyweight toys with a bantam. And most reporters, with a few exceptions, gleefully submit to his pummeling. It's far easier to report a story about Sharpe James riding a bicycle down the 3rd floor hallways of City Hall to deliver his candidate petitions than to count the number of laws the city broke by siphoning Port Authority payments into capital projects like the downtown arena. I mean, the guy was wearing a straw hat and a tank top for christsakes! And since none of their readers actually care what happens to Newark, it makes for great entertainment. I mean, it's Newark afterall.
Cory Booker isn't that much different. Fresh off-the-plane reporters like to anoint Cory Booker as the incorruptible candidate and the city's next generation savior. The most excited are already counting down to the 2024 presidential primary when Booker would be a ripe 54 years old. He's Yale, Oxford ( Rhodes Scholar thankyouverymuch), Stanford and more earnest to accomplish good than Mister Rogers on Mother's Day.
Cory Booker started as a bright, young thing in Newark. In 1998 he knocked on thousands of doors to beat long-time Central Ward councilman George Branch--an old-style pol who never knew what hit him. I lived in Newark during the summer of 1998 and I remember passing newly-elected Councilman Booker several times on the sidewalk as he walked from his apartment in Brick Towers to City Hall. He smiled as he walked by.
Two years later I saw him again--and he had changed. "He's not in right now," his secretary told the line of Central Ward residents who waited outside his City Hall office hoping to see him. But he was in. I saw other guests, those with more "important" issues than shut-off water or broken traffic lights, enter through a secret side door to see Booker. He hadn't turned into a Sharpe James or copied the most repulsive habits of his fellow council members, but Cory Booker was no longer so bright and new. He got beat in 2002's mayoral election because he thought his shine was intact, and because Sharpe James bused in former Newark residents from South Carolina and Florida to vote.
The 2006 re-match is Booker's race to lose, and he knows it. He's more cautious than a Prudential employee at the corner of Broad and Market streets. Booker is smart enough to know that Sharpe James is throwing out phantom jabs and playing to the crowd. But James is just playing. If the mayor actually tries to seek re-election, Newark voters will resent being toyed with. Booker knows that James can't win the election, but that he can lose it by saying the wrong thing. Booker will continue playing the straight man in the race until it widens in his favor, or he gets really desperate.
Whenever someone asks me to explain what's the matter with Newark I start talking about toilets. I talk about specific toilets--the public restrooms located on the 3rd floor of Newark's city hall. The bathrooms for the council members and the mayor are immaculate, five-star affairs. I saw them when I was doing my interviews for my college thesis. But I also the saw public restrooms located less than sixty feet away. In there I found broken tiles, busted spigots, stalls drapped in caution tape like a crime scene, and urinals backed up all over the floor. Both facilities share the same plumbing, water source, and design plans--but one is for the people in power, and the other is for everyone else. Ever since I encountered this 'tale of two toilets, I've known that the symbol of Newark's failure to address its problems sits a dozen paces from the mayor's own gilded "throne."


Going East

Yesterday I accepted a new job as an associate editor at Backpacker magazine--part of the Rodale group based in Emmaus, PA. Besides requiring me to change the title of this Web site (how does "Buckeye Bounced To The Keystone State" sound?) I will be moving back east in a few weeks time. I am looking forward to new challenges at Backpacker, and the chance to make new friends and acquaintances. In the past few days I've realized that there are a lot of little choices in everyday life--but only a few decisions that have the weight of years upon them.


The Traveling Inferno

I was in transit this weekend. I was heading east across the country when thunderstorms over Chicago turned O'Hare airport into a pack of frustrated humanity worthy of the former "Hog Butcher for the World." I was trapped there for several hours as a participant/observer to this impacted chaos. They called it an "Air Traffic Control" delay--which I believe is the aviation equivalent to driving slowly when a downpour turns your windshield into a semi-opaque waterslide.
As I trekked through the concourses to find my departure gate, I noticed the curious transformation that occurred. The deeper I ventured into the airport, the more the architecture began to reflect the desperation of the stranded passengers.
I started beneath the gleaming glass and steel struts of the airport's newest terminal. I passed by Wolfgang Puck, Hudson News, Chile's and other denizens of the jet-set. Cyborg-like business travelers, electronic gear dangling from their earlobes, sipped coffees and beers with the confidence of frequently-delayed travelers. Plus, it's easier to be calm when you aren't paying for flights and meals. Here I glided along walkways under glowing fluorescent tubes.
But as I journeyed deeper into the airport, the wide corridors gave way to construction littered hallways, blind corners, and broken escalators draped in yellow tape. The information monitors announcing the arrivals and departures changed from crisp flat-screens to dinky RBG monitors dangling from the ceiling.
I left Wolfgang Puck behind, and found myself in the realm of Cinnabun, greasy pizza, and a forlorn Starbucks besieged by long lines of caffeine addicts. The air conditioning died out, leaving crowded hallways hot with unhappy people. Soon I noticed passengers splayed out on the floor like-war wounded waiting for the end to come.
From my quick study of the in-flight magazine map, I knew my gate was located at the far end of a long corridor. But when I reached the end of all paths--it wasn't there. Then I noticed the stairs going down. My gate was one of those basement departure zones--the cattle yards of airline travel. I saw people camped out on the stairs, their bags forming a hasty perimeter around their bodies.
I had little hope as I started my descent.


Real genius

The weekend edition of the Wall Street Journal has a fun article describing how the chess team at Miami Dade Community College topped the best players from Harvard, Yale, and MIT to make the final four of the collegiate chess championships last December. Most of the community college's players hail from Cuba; a country, I learned, with a strong chess tradition. Miami Dade has done well in past competitions, but I believe this is the first time its Cuban chess superstars have been profiled in the national press.
The article described one player, Alberto Hernandez, as "a brawny 40-year-old security guard who studies English part time at Miami Dade." Hernandez arrived to the U.S. in a raft from Cuba in 1994. One of his opponents in the national competition was a 20-year biochemistry student at Harvard.
The article reminded me of a book--The Man Who Knew Infinity--about the 25-year-old Indian clerk named Ramanujan who was a self-taught mathematical prodigy. In 1913, Ramanujan sent an unsolicited letter containing several math proofs to G. H. Hardy, a prominent English mathematician. The undeniable genius of Ramanujan's equations impressed and puzzled Hardy, who arranged for the young Indian to come to England. Like a Good Will Hunting story authored by Evelyn Waugh, Hardy and Ramanujan worked together for five years, turning out incredible mathematical discoveries. But the young Indian felt isolated and homesick in England, and returned to India in 1919 where he died of tuberculosis a year later.
This story has always made me believe that the world's greatest celloist is not Yo-Yo Ma, but a child in Vietnam tending rice paddies who has never seen a cello. The best movie director is not Steven Spielberg, but an orphan living in the Rio's "City of God" who knows real anger and passion. The greatest writer on the planet is not sitting in a Starbucks with a laptop computer, but an East African boy herding bony cattle across the savannah whose only stories are the ones he dreams under the wide sky. Because of stories like Ramanujan and Miami Dade's chess players, I believe that there is much more genius in this world than there is time or luck to be discovered.