A Frozen Zen Garden Awaits Someone

I don’t like it when the sky dumps over two feet of snow on a city and forces it to shut down; I love it when the sky dumps that snow. It forces the inflexible to change their plans. It forces the ambitious to relax. It forces the pedestrians in the most in-a-hurry city in America to stop and let one another pass.

When the city banned cars from the road on Saturday, people on foot took to the streets, smiling and snapping photos of each other in the middle of avenues. The moon was full somewhere up in that sky, and many were inebriated – nothing was open except for bars and liquor stores, and a few bodegas and hardware stores hoping to sell a few more shovels.

The next day, I wasn’t the only person to think of going to Green-Wood Cemetery: I came across a dozen or so people, mostly in twos, but one other solo guy as well, a bat shit crazy Chinese-American ranting about a disagreement he was having in his head, who greeted my “hello” with a scared silence that lasted till he was thirty yards behind me.


Come to mourn the loss of absolutely nothing.

I was looking for a spot I’d found the week before, one day when my wife and I were the only people who’d thought of going there. We’d come across a part of the cemetery I’d once known as a dumping ground for torn-out shrubs and piles of leaves, and then a construction site. Now the construction was finished.

Old cemeteries are under financial pressure to find more patches of ground within their gates to bury bodies in. Civil War vets don’t pay the bills. Green-Wood, I could see, had converted its biggest compost pile into a new mausoleum.

Why do we like cemeteries? What compels people to go think about life surrounded by other people’s ancestors? In most places they’re the only parks made for silent contemplation. Roller blading is forbidden. Lycra® is bad form. Reading the names of strangers whose place in the fabric of life is already final, you feel connected to that fabric.

Still – and I say this as someone who does U-turns on country roads in Pennsylvania when he sees that he’s missed a boneyard by an old Moravian church – you feel pangs of guilt about the voyeurism of it. This isn’t your great-grandparent, and it isn’t your faith. The beauty of this spot was cultivated to ease the grief of someone else.

This wall of empty space in Green-Wood provides all the contemplation with none of the distraction of the actual object of mourning. Very tastefully done too, I might add.


Boss Tweed’s grave, worn by generations of hands.

With few actual graves in this pile of snow, it’s understandable that the crew at Green-Wood was in no hurry to dig out its paths. I would have walked right past it yesterday if I hadn’t made a mental note that it was just around the corner from Boss Tweed’s grave. I always found it curious how much corrosion Tweed’s stone has, presumably from people who’ve come to touch history. He’s not Saint Mark or Elvis Presley. He’s the symbol of something that, to those who care about it, they probably have mixed feelings about. Forgive the pun, but I guess he’s still a touchstone.

If you can find Boss Tweed’s grave, keep poking around. I’d put my rubber boots on to wade into the drifts, but only got as close as the next ridge over, about as far as it takes for a madman to feel like danger has passed so he can start ranting again. It was so pretty I didn’t want to disturb it.

This week while water trickles from underneath the drifts, one of you will break through the crust on top of the snow to find a frozen meditation garden, a place to contemplate being on this planet and what’s really important. All the things we miss while we’re doing, doing, doing.

A Tragic Lack of Humility

Making a Murderer, like most good binge-watches, is like lying in the bathtub after unplugging the drain. You can feel the water tugging at your shoulders and ankles, until it starts sounding like it’s accelerating in speed. For me last night was the night we said, “Let’s just finish this.”

I feel for the makers of Serial, who released their own Season 2 the same week or so that Netflix started streaming this show, exposing themselves to inevitable comparisons. Serial is still probably reaching enough listeners to be the envy of anyone who ever tried making a podcast, if not for the inflated expectations that followed its Season 1.

It could just prove what we already know, that we, the public, like a murder mystery. I like to think I’ve got a discursive mind, and I’m not addicted to the thrill of suspense at all. In fact, I knew the general outcome of Making a Murderer beforehand and still loved every second. Still, I felt the first episode of Serial Season 2, about the Bowe Bergdahl case, gave the story away. I put it on the mental “check that out sometime” list, like a New Yorker issue under the coffee table, opened to a long profile I never quite make time to read. I guess I’m a sucker for a story like anyone else.

The more profound difference between the two series is that Making a Murderer has no narration. I know, one’s radio, one’s TV, and they have different possibilities, but Making a Murderer is so much more complete an experience because it’s mostly footage and audio-taped phone calls of the participants while it’s unfolding or shortly afterward, mostly in beautiful Wisconsin working class dialect. And I do mean that without sarcasm: if you’ve spent any time in Wisconsin, and I’ve spent some, you know what a distinct place it is, full of good-hearted, trusting people, but a state with a mean streak. Making a Murderer immerses you there. You sometimes hear the word “musical” to describe accents from the Deep South, but Wisconsin has a music in its o’s and a’s too, strange and dissonant but musical nonetheless.

Serial, by comparison, has lots of its public radio hosts’ ponderous observations. It feels like you’ve landed at a dinner party in Brooklyn Heights or Ann Arbor, with all the familiar reference points, and started eaves-dropping on a fascinating conversation between an attorney and someone just home from the Peace Corps. Fascinating, but pass the quinoa.


D.A. Kratz, smug perv of the year.

In Making a Murderer, it’s not till the third or so episode, out of ten, that the series introduces its heroes, the defense attorneys Dean Strang and Jerry Buting, two Atticus Finches of the North. A Kirk-Spock or Luke-Han Solo duo with more muted Midwestern accents, they seem like small town guys who got advanced degrees but kept a soft spot for the folks on the wrong sides of the tracks.

By then we’ve already met the villains, the faces of the law enforcement-prosecution machine that Strang ultimately has the last word on: guys with a “tragic lack of humility.” As it goes on, you occasionally hear the defense’s researcher break down what’s going on, in that knowledgable way that only an ex-cop can deliver.

Strang himself attributes the success of Making a Murderer to two trends in public thinking that are seemingly at odds: That shows like CSI have gotten people to think of court rooms as places where scientific certainty can be found; and that DNA evidence has exonerated enough convicts in the past 15-20 years that people are open to the fallibility of courts. I’d only add that Black Lives Matter has put police-prosecution systemic bias on the map like never before. Making a Murderer is an in-depth look at a control group for what ails Ferguson or Cleveland: a lily white community with similar stories, but different skin tones.

Only Episode 10, when the lawyers proliferate, feels like we’ve emerged from the depths of the Wisconsin working class into the fresh air (pun intended) of the collegiate, free-tote-bag set, but I didn’t mind that at all either. I was ready for some commentary to make sense of it all, and I don’t feel like throwing a dinner party.

I see why this is the series, and the Serial, of the winter of 2015-16.

The Christmas of Star Wars

Lucky for me, there’s a still a crumbling half o’ panettone on top of my fridge. Now that our birdbath is frozen, it finally feels like Christmas.

Winter finally hits...our birdbath. 1/11/16.

Winter finally hits…our birdbath. 1/11/15

Star Wars? Didn’t see it. I know, it’s basic film and pop culture literacy I’m ignoring – I had to have several of my nieces’ and nephews’ jokes explained to me at Christmas.

I saw the first Star Wars at the Directors Chair Cinema in Hamilton Square, New Jersey, one of the few times I ever went out to the movies with my father and brothers. We were dazzled, though I distinctly remember my mother, afterwards, asking how it was, and my father saying, “It was just like every cowboy movie I’ve ever seen.”

Maybe this is what made me skeptical, but I definitely regarded the kids who fell hard for the trivia and collectible action figures as dupes of commercialism, before I could tell you what commercialism is. After The Empire Strikes Back, I was done with it all. Ewoks, I only know about through the collective unconscious. The ’90s prequels, I never bothered with, even when friends pleaded with me that one or the other was “not that bad,” or that they were worthwhile on TV.

I woke up Christmas morning, looked up some showtimes for The Hateful Eight, and opted to watch The Sound of Music at home. It was my first time ever, though it’s undoubtedly something I would have seen back in my Star Wars days if I had one single sister. The Sound of Music (screenplay by Ernest Lehman, based on the stage musical book by Howard Lindsay and Russell Crouse, based on Die Trapp-Familie, written by George Hurdalek.) was for a while the highest-grossing film of all time. The puppet scene in that movie is about all the special effects I ever want to see:

Christmas Eve, 2015.

Christmas Eve, 2015.


Still, the milestone of another year passing does make natural born procrastinators like me want to hunker down. This past month I got through a first draft of a business plan for a venture I want to start in 2017. Aside from that, all the writing I got done was this couplet:

“Christmas Eve, Two Zip Fifteen.

You seem to me like Halloween.”