Built-In Inspiration

One of the great things about working for a university is the opportunity to explore iconic buildings on campus.

Crouse College exterior. Photo by Francis DiClemente.

Today I had to go to Crouse College—home of Syracuse University’s College of Visual and Performing Arts—to pick up a check from the BBC that was mailed to the wrong office.

I stood on the steps outside the wooden doors, admiring the exterior archways and the designs on the reddish-brown columns. Stepping inside the building, I noticed sunlight pouring through a stained-glass window above me, while one floor up, someone was playing the organ inside Setnor Auditorium.

Stained-glass window inside Crouse College at Syracuse University. Photo by Francis DiClemente.

An artistic ambience enveloped the place, punctuated by warm tungsten lights illuminating the hallways and panels of medieval artwork hanging on the walls. I walked past the Winged Victory statue as I looked for the business operations office, which was occupied by cheerful employees sitting in cubicles. Large windows framed a postcard winter scene with snow falling on a row of evergreen trees. A woman handed me the lost check and I went on my way.

Winged Victory Statue at Syracuse University. Photo by Steve Sartori.

But before I left the building, I wondered if I could get transferred to an office in VPA or at least do a three-month rotation.

Railing and staircase inside Crouse College.

Then I thought, would such a stimulating environment spur my creativity or would I fall victim to sensory overload, viewing and consuming art every day but not producing any work? Too bad I won’t get the chance to find out.

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Unsung Christmas Song

Leave it to legend Roy Orbison to shatter the festive mood of the holiday season.

John Hercock/Central Press/Getty Images

While listening to the “Holiday Favorites” station on Amazon Music, I heard Orbison’s “Pretty Paper” sandwiched somewhere between “Jingle Bell Rock” and Burl Ives’ “Holly Jolly Christmas.”

The song packs a narrative punch in just two minutes and forty-five seconds, as it tells the story of a lonely man on a sidewalk ignored by Christmas shoppers. Sadness prevails in the lyrics and the vulnerability expressed in Orbison’s voice and in the backup vocals draws us into the story, putting the listener on the busy street with the other passersby. I asked myself: Would I pay stop and say “hello” to the man? Would I even bother to notice him?

It’s also worth mentioning that Orbison did not write the lyrics. According to Wikipedia, Willie Nelson wrote “Pretty Paper” in 1963.

Photo by Jeffery Washington, Fort Worth Star-Telegram

The line that devastates me is, “And in the midst of the laughter he cries …”

The full lyrics follow. And I wish everyone a Merry Christmas and Happy New Year.

Pretty Paper
Willie Nelson

Pretty paper, pretty ribbons of blue
Wrap your presents to your darling from you
Pretty pencils to write I love you
Pretty paper, pretty ribbons of blue
Crowded street, busy feet, hustle by him
Downtown shoppers, Christmas is nigh
There he sits all alone on the sidewalk
Hoping that you won’t pass him by
Should you stop? Better not, much too busy
You’re in a hurry, my how time does fly
In the distance the ringing of laughter
And in the midst of the laughter he cries
Pretty paper, pretty ribbons of blue
Wrap your presents to your darling from you
Pretty pencils to write I love you
Pretty paper, pretty ribbons of blue.

Songwriters: Willie Nelson
Pretty Paper lyrics © Roy Orbison Music Company, Sony/ATV Music Publishing LLC, Universal Music Publishing Group, Warner/Chappell Music, Inc.

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Winnowing the CD Collection

I am clearing some space in my one-bedroom apartment, and I recently tackled the project of going through a large blue tote filled with about 200 CDs. All of the albums have been loaded into my iTunes library, so there’s no real reason for me to hang on to them.

Clarity, by Jimmy Eat World

Clarity by Jimmy Eat World

I separated some that I wanted to keep for sentimental reasons—like The Best of Schubert, Jimmy Eat World’s Clarity and This Desert Life by Counting Crows, which I listened to continuously (on repeat cycle) when trying to decide whether to leave Arizona nine summers ago.

This Desert Life, by Counting Crows

This Desert Life by Counting Crows

I took more than 150 CDs that I wanted to sell to The Sound Garden in Armory Square. Two male clerks divided my collection into a few large stacks and then started going through them, deciding what to buy and what to pass on.

The Sound Garden, located in Armory Square in Syracuse.

The Sound Garden, located in Armory Square in Syracuse.

I was amused as I stood there on the other side of the counter, watching as albums I loved by Bruce Springsteen, Elton John, Otis Redding, Nat King Cole, Roy Orbison, along with other CDs by Guster, The Cure, The Cult and the Rolling Stones, were all returned to me, declined and discarded. One of the clerks said the total they were willing to give me was 93 dollars and I said that was more than fair. I hadn’t expected to make that much.

I took my cash winnings and headed home; I felt like I had just finished hitting a few exactas at the track. The next day I carried a suitcase filled with the remaining CDs to the 3fifteen thrift store in Marshall Square Mall, where the woman working the counter accepted all of them as a donation. She also gave me a coupon for a free cup of coffee next door at Cafe Kubal (not a bad deal from my perspective).

It seems the pruning of my CD collection completes a chapter in my life, as I move into middle age, putting aside the things of my youth and realigning my priorities. Seeing the CDs laid out on the counter at The Sound Garden reminded me of how important my music collection was to me in my early twenties and throughout my thirties. Living alone for most of that time, the CDs were my companions and the songs they played provided another voice, another sound in otherwise lonely apartments.

The River by Bruce Springsteen

The River by Bruce Springsteen

But as I shoved the CDs I had saved back into my walk-in closet, I thought of a line from a Bruce Springsteen song. It’s from the title track from the album The River:

“Now all them things that seemed so important
Well mister they vanished right into the air …”

And the song continues, so I’ll let “The Boss” close out this blog post:

“Now I just act like I don’t remember
Mary acts like she don’t care.

But I remember us riding in my brother’s car
Her body tan and wet down at the reservoir
At night on them banks I’d lie awake
And pull her close just to feel each breath she’d take
Now those memories come back to haunt me,
they haunt me like a curse
Is a dream a lie if it don’t come true
Or is it something worse
that sends me down to the river …”

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MRI Music

I recently had an MRI done at 550 Harrison Center in Syracuse.

550 Harrison Center. Photo by Sutton Real Estate Company.

550 Harrison Center. Photo by Sutton Real Estate Company.

I’ve had several over the years as part of multiple follow-ups for a craniopharyngioma diagnosed in 1984.

Craniopharyngioma

This latest one was for undiagnosed pain in the lower back/sacroiliac joint region. Fortunately, the MRI revealed no abnormalities, although the pain has not diminished.

MRIs never bother me because I have grown so accustomed to receiving them.

I try to get the earliest appointment possible, around 7 a.m., so that way I am half asleep when the X-ray technician straps me in, covers me with a white cotton blanket and leaves the room to take the pictures. Soon the machine begins moving and the noise starts. And I close my eyes, shutting out the fluorescent light and drifting off to sleep inside the white tube. I also like to imagine I am a NASA astronaut blasting off in a shuttle, heading to the International Space Station to deliver much-needed supplies.

Before the MRI begins at 550 Harrison, you are handed a set of Upstate University Hospital scrubs, led to a small locker area and instructed to change into the medical attire. So before I come out of the changing room, I look at myself in the mirror and pretend I am Dr. Mark Greene (Anthony Edwards) from ER getting ready to start an overnight shift.

Anthony Edwards. Photo by Paul Drinkwater/NBC.

Yes, I suffer from an advanced case of Walter Mitty complex.

The techs at the Harrison Center allow patients to pick music to listen to during the MRI. Before you step into the exam room, you are handed a laminated list of artists and you can choose who you want to listen to.

The genres on the list include country, children’s music, world music, male artists, female artists, easy listening, classical, etc.

I always select U2 because you can never go wrong with the Dublin quartet.

My latest MRI playlist consisted of the following songs: Angel of Harlem, Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For, Walk On (Live), The Unforgettable Fire, With or Without You and Peace on Earth.

Here are some other choices on the list that caught my eye:

Male Vocalists: Andrea Bocelli and Luciano Pavarotti

Classical: Bach and Beethoven

Female Artists: Pink and Alicia Keys

Male Artists: Rod Stewart and Elton John

Rock: Boston and Aerosmith (the heavy guitar sound could partially compete with the noise of the MRI machine)

Country: Johnny Cash and Patsy Cline


During my recent MRI I was instructed to lie down on the flatbed of the Hitachi open MRI unit.

Open MRI Unit

It was the first time I had experienced the open MRI version and I must confess I missed the narrow tube. I like the snug feeling of the space-shuttle-like machine.

The tech, a thin middle-aged woman with dark brown hair and black-rimmed glasses, covered me with a blanket, tucking my arms in, and then left the room. A short time later the familiar wup-wup-wup sound started up, as did the music by U2; Bono and the boys did their best to compete with the grating sound of the machine, but they could not drown out the loud mechanical sound.

The woman’s voice came over the intercom and she said, “OK, this round will be six minutes long. Just lie still.” I closed my eyes and tried to sleep.

I was tired and would have preferred to remain locked in the MRI position for the rest of the day, listening to music and catching some ZZZs while the world carried on without me.

And I realize the time spent confined in the MRI tube (or on the table for the open MRI) leads to serious reflection. You start thinking about your life and you pinpoint what is truly important. No matter what body part you have scanned, you are always afraid of the outcome, and you become weighted down with a foreboding sense. You anticipate the worst-case scenario, the discovery of a flaw in your body that will prove fatal.

You think about how you will handle the news if the MRI shows a tumor or cancer. The “what ifs” penetrate your mind. What if it’s an inoperable brain tumor? What if it’s cancer and it has already spread from the lung to the liver? What if I only have six months to live? Of course these are morbid thoughts, but when you’re confined to the machine with your eyes closed and the wup-wup-wup is roaring in your head, you drift into a higher level of thought, one that reaches a profound plane, separated from the trivial concerns of everyday life. And your thoughts become tilted toward your health, your family and your faith.

And in the peaceful white room you realize most of what you worry about in life is insignificant. Your thinking crystalizes. And you tell yourself what matters most is being healthy, living a decent, productive life and loving your family and friends. You tell yourself you will stop worrying about the small stuff. But after a few days, the old inconsequential concerns bubble to the surface. It can’t be helped. It’s human nature.

But I know in my case, the next MRI appointment will give me time for meditation and offer another opportunity to reset my thinking.

The next time, though, I will take a risk and listen to something other than U2. Wup-wup-wup.

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