Skip to content

In New York City

25-Feb-17

Roosevelt on NatureThere’s always something to remind me of home.

For Trinh Huynh, A Good Friend.

06-Apr-17

Trinh HuynhWe live in an unusually violent country, and death by firearms shows up in all of our actuarial tables as a relatively common way to die, so it stands to reason that as you go through life you will eventually have friends who get murdered. And my friend Trinh Huynh became one of them. As of this writing, I have available to me only the barest facts: on 7:40 a.m. Monday morning, she was walking along Peachtree Street in downtown Atlanta when a man came up behind her, put three bullets in her back, and ran away. There were other people on the street, whom the man did not kill, so she was apparently his particular target. As this took place downtown, numerous surveillance videos showed the man walking toward the murder scene and later running away from it. No information has been passed down as to why she was targeted, though as we go to trial I presume some kind of motive will emerge. A man with a previous criminal record was taken into custody shortly after the shooting, with the murder weapon in his car. The fact that he seems to have taken little thought about concealment or escape seems to indicate either purpose – he wanted to commit this murder publicly and go to prison for it – or insanity.

Trinh was a wonderful, quirky, loving woman, and I’m sure there are people out there saying they can’t imagine such a thing happening to her. I can’t say that; in fact I think that out of all my friends, she was one of the ones I would think would be most likely to get into trouble. This is because she had courage; seemingly infinite supplies of it, and when you meet someone who has it, you realize just how unusual a quality it is. She was tiny, never much more than a hundred pounds, and she went all over the world, and though she was a corporate lawyer and could have travelled however she pleased, she usually Couchsurfed, staying in strangers’ homes. I believe she also did some “woofing,” working and staying on organic farms. “I don’t wanna just stay in some hotel that’s boring,” she would say in her thick Georgia accent that always was so charming given her Asian background, “I wanna do something real. Meet people, do some work, see something different. Those hotels are all the same.” I don’t know how many countries she visited, but it was a lot.  On the Internet I see a little tribute to her from a man who met her in La Paz and then ran into her again in Buenos Aires and Ireland.  Sometimes hearing about her travels – she went to a lot of places – I would think, “This woman’s crazy she’s going to get herself killed.” She was also not shy. She was the kind of person who would pick on someone who was trying to cut a line. She didn’t put up with anything unfair. This is my nightmare scenario for her death, in fact, that maybe it all just came from a fight she started at Wal-mart or something with the homicidal maniac trying to cut the line: “Hey buddy the line’s over here,” I can see her calling out. “See all these people here? Yeah. They’re waiting, and they were all here before you, so get to the back of the line and wait your turn.”

I first saw Trinh during my first week at Princeton, during an event called the Cane Spree. This was half barbecue, and half barbarism. It had grown out of a barbaric custom which was still maintained: freshman and sophomores would wrestle each other to gain sole possession of a cane placed into their hands. It was the custom for freshmen to step forward first, and then for a sophomore to take up the challenge. Trinh stepped out. As I have said, she was never big, but her eighteen-year-old self looked like a child: she may have weighed eighty pounds then. The crowd cheered and laughed: Tom Thumb had come out as the Champion of the freshman class. The referee looked to a sophomore to answer the challenge. After a few moments, out swaggered a huge woman, a beefy, burly field hockey player, who was more than twice Trinh’s size. The crowd groaned. It was so patently unfair a match, and so unsporting, that it showed in an instant how far Ivy League sport culture had descended: this woman had seen an opportunity for victory, and victory was more important than a fair and fine contest. Trinh herself threw up her arms, and for a second looked as if she would try to melt back into the crowd, but she stopped herself and stayed. There were no rules suspending an unfair match, and so the two women grabbed hold of the cane, and the referee began the match.

What followed was the longest contest of the whole day. That is not to say it was even: it was totally one-sided, in fact. The field hockey player would jerk her arms one way, and send Trinh flying that way, and then jerk her arms the other way and Trinh would go that way. But she could not get her to let go. She dragged her along the ground, through the mud, and then tried a swift jerk to get the cane away, but Trinh’s entire little body would go flying wherever the cane went. She tried to step on her with a foot, and pull her body away from the cane, but Trinh would scoot out from under her feet and kick at her. Once the hockey player made a massive lunge to dislodge the cane and failed, and Trinh responded with a surprise counterassault; the field hockey player’s fingers visibly loosened from the cane, and the crowd, which had mostly been moaning and groaning in pity, went wild with excitement; but the woman’s fingers reclasped the cane just before Trinh made a last-gasp effort to take the cane, using up every ounce of energy she had left. But it wasn’t enough. The other woman got on top of her, buried a knee in her chest, and ripped the cane from her hands. I was surprised Trinh’s arms didn’t come off with the cane.

That fall it was my good luck to be placed in a room of intellectually curious and sociable roommates. One of them, Alex Heneveld, was a math genius, and half the college’s engineers and mathematicians would come to him for help with their problem sets. He was also taking Mandarin, and our room became a hangout spot for anyone in beginning Mandarin as well. Trinh was one of the people taking that class, and one evening, in she walked: that woman from the Cane Spree. Of the people I met, she stood out for her humor, frankness, and general willingness to share. What was not obvious at the time, but would become so, was her loyalty and capacity for friendship: she would be my friend for the rest of her life.

Some of my best memories from my whole life were the weeks after we had turned in our theses, senior year. Trinh would show up at my room with her 200g glow-in-the-dark frisbee, a heavy, long-distance slinger, and we would proceed to Cannon Green where we would throw that thing for hours. She taught me how to throw forehand using an unusual technique which involved flattening the disc against your forearm, which taxed the elbow somewhat but provided a very reliable throwing angle. She was an expert at it herself and it was a real pleasure to see her send that frisbee from one side of the Green to the other. Afterward I heard from the late Bob Fagles that he would watch us in between work on his translation of the Aeneid, from his window overlooking the Green. “Your friend,” he said, “throws beautifully.”

When we got tired we would sit under the ash-trees there and talk. She would look for four-leaf clovers. I would look a bit too, but once I got past about a dozen plants I was done looking and would just want to talk. But she would keep going: “Found one!” she would call out. Usually other people would have joined our little group, people we had intercepted coming from the library or Chancellor Green or Nassau Street, and I would be deep in conversation with them while the hunt for good luck continued. “Look at this one this is a perfect one. Come on now, who else do you know who can find five four-leaf clovers in fifteen minutes? That’s damn impressive if you ask me.”

They’re all gone now – Fagles is gone, Trinh is gone, even the ash-trees, which I think were the oldest trees on campus, are gone now.

I visited Trinh in Atlanta not long after my divorce. “If I ever see that guy,” she said, talking about my ex-wife’s lover, “I will kick him in the balls. I’m serious. Splat. As far as I’m concerned, that’s what he deserves. And if I see your ex-wife, I’ll REALLY kick her in the balls.” I don’t think it would have been very useful in practice, and now I’d really recommend a different course of action entirely, but at the time all I wanted to hear was that kind of loyalty.

I don’t remember if it was on that visit or a previous one when Trinh dropped me off at her mom’s place to spend a few hours there. “I have an errand to go on but you’ve got to meet my mom,” she told me. “She’s gonna love you.” I knew her mom from a very impressive picture that Trinh used to bring with her wherever she lived, of her mother in the center with her five daughters all around. They were all individually very strong people, but the picture of all of them together made it clear just how remarkable a family it was: together they radiated power and vitality.

I thought Trinh’s mom might want to have some long thoughtful conversation with me (what else am I good for, in the end?), but it was otherwise. Trinh vanished to go do her errand and her mom (who spoke English poorly, in fact) dragged me down to the karaoke machine in the basement, where she insisted I sing with her. It was quite a setup down there: she had the karaoke videos and everything, of various Asian couples walking along the beach and riding horses and having candlelit dinners, and the lyrics would come right up on the screen. In the end she determined that Bee Gees songs were my best, and along with a few dozen other selections, we did “How Deep Is Your Love” together about five times before Trinh got back. Trinh had known this would happen, of course, and chortled devilishly to herself as she inquired about her time with my mom. “My mom requires human sacrifice,” she said, laughing. “I have to feed the beast: I have to find her karaoke victims. She’s crazy about it. And with that 80s stuff you do, I was sure she was gonna love you.”

“If you had told me beforehand I could have thought of some good stuff to do a little easier.”

“No it’s all about the element of surprise. You get dragged down to some basement in Georgia with some crazy Vietnamese woman to sing Bee Gees songs, and you don’t know if you’ll ever escape.” She thought this was the most hilarious thing ever, and in fact, it was pretty funny.

Trinh volunteered for the Georgia Asylum and Immigration Network, which provides legal help to immigrants and refugees, especially those who have been the victims of crimes, and when the refugee controversy first flared up a few years ago she was very outspoken about the fact that she felt that this country had room for refugees. She herself had come as a refugee from Vietnam in 1979 when she was three years old, fleeing first to Indonesia where she was held in a refugee camp and then making it to America. A picture taken of her in that camp in Indonesia is just about the cutest thing you could ever see, and she made the point clearly: “’This is the face of a refugee. I am proud of my refugee status. I am thankful for the opportunities this wonderful country has afforded me and my family. I would not be here if the State of Georgia and this country had closed their doors and hearts to my family. I think this great state and the US have more love to give.” She’s right, of course.

The last time I saw Trinh was at a wedding party held at my cabin in August of 2015. She came up from Georgia and wowed everyone with her combination of intelligence, humor, and boldness. “Your friend Trinh,” people came up to me to say, “she’s really cool.” She showed up, pitched her tent in my field, and involved herself in all the details of the party planning, food, music, everything. I always leave the planning til the last minute of course and her help was invaluable. She admired the flowers in my garden and in short order she had made about twenty different flower arrangements which she distributed throughout the property in mason jars. I typically have flowers at my cabin, so I’m used to making arrangements of all sorts, but Trinh did something I had never thought to do in eight years here: she not only used the flowers for the arrangements, but used large quantities of the hay-scented fern which surrounds the house. As soon as I saw how beautiful it looked, I couldn’t believe I had never thought of using them. And no one else had either.

While there, of course Trinh was the life of the party, and into everything. My wife Catherine thinks that pants with zip-off legs are just about the most absurd and funny thing on the planet. I happen to have several pairs of pants like that, which I use for hiking. If it gets too hot, I just zip the legs off. I go through a nettle patch, I zip them back on. Catherine thinks this is ridiculous. I guess zip-pants are never going to become high fashion. Somehow or other Trinh found this out, and seeing that I was wearing these pants, she walked over to me, grabbed my pant leg, called out, “Hey, Catherine, look at this!” and proceeded to zip and unzip the pant leg over and over again, saying “Whoah, so cool!” Catherine was so pleased that someone else had thought these pants were notably absurd, and Trinh just laughed and laughed.

Trinh brought me a lovely wedding present: a pair of brand-new frisbees. Someday my kids are going to learn to throw them the way Trinh threw. But I know that all the little things we do to keep alive the memory of the dead in the end do not add up to the original sum; and in all these instances, I fall back on religion, and the dearest hope of thinkers of all ages, that the Power which produced all these lives may be able to restore them. Until that day, I am just left with a sense of how criminal it truly is to take a life in this way; how terrible it is that man should destroy something he cannot by all his exertions ever bring back.

I’ll be heading down to Atlanta this weekend, to celebrate her life. She was a beautiful woman and a beautiful friend.

Time

19-Mar-17

Sitting at a desk in my mother’s house to write, my daughter gave me perhaps thirty seconds before she followed me and crawled into my lap.  As I pecked away, now onehanded – whenever I tried to use my right hand it would get in her face a bit, and she energetically would thrust it away – she started picking cards off the desk, sorting and shuffling them over and over.  When my attention wandered, I saw that they were laminated mass cards, of the sort given out at wakes.  Little Mary enjoyed playing with them, moving them from her hands to her lap and back again, sorting and shuffling them, running her fingertips along their edges, putting them to her lips.  I looked at the names – these were the men and women I grew up with.  Neighbors, family friends, my father, my grandmother.  How strange it is to see a new generation grow amidst these reminders of the ones who are gone.

Spring Peepers in Connecticut – on March 1st.

02-Mar-17

Tonight for the first time we heard the spring peepers in Westbrook, Connecticut.  This is about seven weeks before what would be normal in the Catskills; my guess is that it’s at least four weeks before normal for this area.  Birds are returning as well.  The animals may be wrong, but nature seems to be guessing that winter is over.  I’ve seen no activity coming from native plants – the crocuses are up here, but they’re not native and can be forced to come up at almost any time.  No trees are budding.  No seeds are germinating.  But that’s got to be coming soon.  The ground is not frozen, and it’s 65 degrees at 11 p.m. on March First.

The Reginald Foster Biography Project

25-Feb-17

This past fall I was asked to write a profile of Fr. Reginald Foster, which is coming out shortly from The New Criterion.  At the time I was working on a memoir about Rome, and it was obvious that I was leaving a tremendous amount about my relationship with Reginaldus unsaid because it was too complicated.  I began thinking about a larger writing project about Reginaldus.  When I went to Milwaukee to interview Reginaldus for the piece, I realized that the time was very ripe for a biography.  His memory is superb, and he was in a very sentimental mood – very willing to answer questions and very interested in dwelling for awhile on the past.

What will help this project along the most is if students of Reginaldus take some time to write down their memories of him.  I’d love for thoughtful essays but almost anything written down is useful.  Pictures are useful too.  Material can be sent to me – jbkuhner@gmail.com.  The more material we have written down, the easier it is to put together a biography.

On Growing Lilies

25-Feb-17

A brief piece I wrote for the Catskill Native Plant Society.

Understanding Cicero.

03-Nov-16

A piece I wrote for the SALVI blog about hearing Cicero performed, which answered for me one of the questions I have heard Classicists voice aloud: whether or not the Romans could really understand grammar and language as difficult as Cicero’s, in real time, live in the Forum.  An hourlong speech can take half a semester for American college students to read – and that at the best colleges.  How did the Romans pull it off?  Simple: the auditory equipment of the brain for processing language is far faster and more powerful than the analytical tools of philology.  Read for yourself.

Pawpaw Season.

25-Oct-16

Pawpaw Cream PieOver the past week, Catherine has made a pawpaw cream pie, pawpaw pancakes, and we’ve had pawpaw ice cream made locally. I’ve been pretty impressed at how useful pawpaws can be. And I’m amazed that this the largest native North American fruit has never made it into American cuisine until now, because it fits in pretty easily. Anything you can use a banana for you can use a pawpaw for, but pawpaws you can grow in your backyard.  Thanks to Catskill Native Nursery for the pawpaws!

Artichokes.

25-Jul-16

Dried ArtichokesThe Catskills is not a great place for artichokes, but they’re nice to eat and apparently the Florentines think they make excellent dried flowers as well.  And I think they’re right.

Florence.

24-Jul-16

OrsanmicheleOur first stop on our little trip through Italy was Florence.  There are new fast trains from Rome to Florence which arrive in less than an hour and a half.  Before we knew it we were lugging our bags past Santa Maria Novella and over the Arno to our guesthouse.

I have to admit that Florence is not a place I really look forward to going to. Catherine really wanted to see it (she had never been there), so we were going to go; but even twenty years ago people were calling the place “Disneyland Rinascimento,” and at times it really does feel just like that – a Renaissance-themed Disneyland. In summer, on the streets in the center of town, there are probably twenty tourists for every resident. You hear all the languages of the wealthy of the world – Arabic, Japanese, French, German, Chinese, Spanish, Dutch, Russian, English most of all – but so little Italian. It’s enough to make even the most naive tourist a little self-conscious. Even Santa Maria del Fiore, the vast and ambitious cathedral at the heart of town which is always surrounded now by vast lines of tourists trying to get in, looks somehow fake and saccharine and (to me) silly: its exterior is all red white and green marble, as if Willy Wonka had intended it as the centerpiece of a theme park: the Candy-Cane Cathedral.

Then there is the shopping-mall aspect of the place. I’m sure I literally don’t even know the half of it, because I don’t recognize the names of these stores, which I’m sure are very alta-moda and very expensive. But I do recognize some of the stores with shops there: Coach and Dolce & Gabbana and Louis Vuitton (I still don’t know how to pronounce that last name, nor do I want to know) and Abercrombie & Fitch and Swarovski and many others. On the Piazza della Signoria where Savanarola held the Bonfire of the Vanities, Gucci has not only a store but a whole museum dedicated to Gucci.

But I’ll admit that even though I’ll never own anything from any of these stores it is kind of fun every once in awhile to people-watch outside of them, and people do legitimately seem happy when they’re shopping, and I do like happy people. And then there’s the art. Walking down the Via dei Calzauoli from the Candy Cane place, you walk past a Disney Store and a Stefanel and just before you get to the Occitane, there’s Verrocchio’s Doubting of Saint Thomas. There it is, just in a niche, right there. Actually I’m pretty sure it’s a copy but it’s a superb copy, a million-dollar copy with everything but the patina, which it’s slowly developing.

I have a special place in my heart for this piece. Of course there are the obvious theological reasons: there are crazy religious people, some of them even Catholics, who in a million years would never think to put the words “doubting” and “saint” together. That Christ could accept so blasphemous and complete a doubt – a doubt that insists on sensory evidence – and that the Church could canonize such arrant dubitation, suggests a Christ and a Church more accepting and capacious than these people would ever want to be part of. It’s one of those parts of the Christian story, present from the very beginning, which a certain sort of mind blocks out.

This statue traveled to New York in 1993, and I was lucky enough to see it then. In fact, our theology teacher, Anthony Conti, thought it was so important he pulled us out of class to visit it. (I really cannot complain about my education, I suppose). We looked at it from different angles, looked at the faces, contemplated what it all meant. From one side Thomas’s body looks like a wedge and Christ seems to bend around it, as if being pierced again; from the other side Christ looms over Thomas, his hand raised almost as if to strike him down. Christ’s face is a masterpiece of modeling, equally suggestive of forgiveness and disappointment. The angling of Thomas’s body suggests excitement about his opportunity, but the strange angle of his arm shows his hesitation. At the very center of the composition is the wound in Christ’s side, out of which poured the blood and the water. It is a gap in the bronze. I remember Mr. Conti looking at that wound – he was a man of a kind of C.S. Lewis-type honesty in his Christianity – for a long time, before he said, “That hole looks like it could swallow him up.” It was a statement that was obviously literally false: it was meant to have a meaning.

Andrea del Verrocchio is one of the many Florentine artists that one discovers in time – the unpopular artists, the artists who don’t get the crowds that Botticelli and Michelangelo and Leonardo get. Florence is filled with their work, and they are one of the main things that makes Florence so lovely and so worth returning to, even if you don’t know what Dolce & Gabbana actually sells.

And Botticelli and Michelangelo and Leonardo are lovely – if you accept that crowds now come with them.

Verrocchio Doubting

Backpacking with Bambini.

22-Jul-16

Traveling with TwinsI consider myself an old pro at backpacking – I started traveling in Europe with a backpack in 1994, coming back many times (never gone longer than eight months, but that’s still a pretty long time), and doing a lot of pack-hiking trips in the U.S. When I do long-distance biking, I strap a backpack onto the back of my bike. It’s what I know best. But how does traveling with two six-month-olds change things?

Well, by the time we arrived at Roma Termini, and laid down our duffel bags and heavy backpacks, and we took the babies out of their baby carriers, we had an answer: traveling with six-month-olds is a lot heavier. It’s not just that you’re carrying baby gear and baby clothes – the gear can be minimized, and the clothes are small – it’s that you’re also carrying them. And you have to carry them up front, where an extra twenty pounds (which is about what they weigh nowadays) really does make a difference. It’s like carrying a Lewis and Short Latin dictionary – and a Liddell and Scott Greek lexicon – and a Webster’s unabridged English dictionary everywhere you go. In addition, of course, to your normal backpack. Now that I’m older and a bit stronger, I think I was a bit cavalier about the extra weight. But with kids in tow, you really have to be ruthless about what you bring. You figure out how much stuff you can comfortably carry, and then subtract the child’s weight from it: that’s how much you should allow yourself to pack. Strollers might be nice, but in Italy they are mostly impractical, where you have to deal with cobblestones, narrow walkways, steep hills, multiple forms of public transit, stairs, or crowds. You have to be ready to carry.

But we had made it to the train station – though already sweaty and shoulder-sore just from a walk to the Metro, and a walk from the Metro to the train station. This was the beginning of the on-the-road portion of our summer. We had discussed renting a car, and Catherine likes buses, which are cheaper, but it does seem that the train is probably the best way to travel with kids. They’re not strapped in to a car seat, and they have the benefit of continual body contact with you; you can walk them around the train, and find them new sources of amusement; and it’s relatively spacious. Italian trains also typically have empty seats, so we could move them around. The seats are the only place to change babies – the bathrooms are too small and have no flat surfaces – so empty seats were particularly useful.

On most of my trips I’ve maintained spontaneity, often arriving in places without accommodation worked out beforehand, but that’s not a luxury for travellers with kids. So we’ve switched over to Airbnb, which seems to offer more than hotels do anyway. Having a kitchen is particularly useful for us, because another thing we generally need to forgo is many meals out. For one it’s expensive, and secondly eating out is not ideal with children. Our kids in general have been excellent in restaurants, but it works much better in the United States, where service is snappy and you can get in and out of a restaurant within a half-hour without too much trouble. In Italy you’re lucky if you’ve gotten any food by then. We’ve been asking the waiters to do everything as veloce as possible, but culture tends to win out.

And already we know a few things about what life with twins is like: you trim your ambitions to what is possible, and satisfy yourself with seeing a good thing or two in a day; which is enough, I think. If you do two museums in a day, you likely will only remember one anyway. And – this is the thing I miss the most – you lose a lot of your time for quiet reflection. If you get a good visit in a museum, with the kids happy or sleeping, then afterwards you don’t have time to write about it – you have to spend some time playing with them, entertaining them, comforting them, or whatever form the attention they require may take.

But in exchange for this you get to see the world through their eyes. Things which you would walk right by without noticing, to them are sources of utter wonder: the dripping of water, the fluttering of a bird, a source of light, an old woman sitting in a cafe, the colors of a plate of food, the feel of a marble column – these things will not only transfix them, but make you see them as well.

And you observe another remarkable thing when traveling with children. Dostoevsky writes about how a happy memory from childhood has incredible, even salvific, power over us. I think this is true, though the reason why is not entirely clear. But I am beginning to see a possible reason: in our childhood, without even knowing it, day after day we are doing good work in the universe. Children bring joy to the people around them, and you see this especially when you are exposed, as backpackers are, to so many people. Beggars who otherwise look abstracted and despondent – their souls return to their eyes in a moment when a child smiles at them. Tourists who are bored, old people who are lonely, all sorts of people will light up at the sight of a happy child, and we often stop to let people enthuse over them for awhile. Sometimes with a baby on my front I even steer toward a sad face, just to see it light up for a moment. Catherine and I have discussed how we feel almost something like an obligation to bring our children out in public, just to let our children do their good work in the world. We’ve discussed her maybe visiting an old folks’ home with them regularly when we get back to America. To me there is something of this causing the phenomenon that Dostoevsky identifies: any kind of link with our childhood is a link to a time when our joy was perfectly contagious, spilling out of us, and not selfish or self-contained.

And the last thing to say about traveling with twins is how much of a joy they are to us, their parents. Travel is intimate; it’s a break from routine, and habitual comforts. When we travel, we have no room of our own, no blanket of our own, none of the comforts that come from familiar things – and so we turn to our companions. They become our home. And so it is for our family on the road. We are experiencing the world together. They will not remember their hands being held as they tried to step their way across the marble floors of San Clemente in Rome – but Catherine and I will. And we will remember how our experience of the world was greater because we were with each other, and they were there with us. And how by the time they left to return to the United States, a third of their time in the light had been spent in Italy – how it was there, on the floors of churches in Rome and Venice that they first began to sit up, how they heard Italian every day from their admirers, and how the first foods they ever reached for were pizza and gelato and Italian bread. Every day from them we are reconnected to the wonder of being alive, and the wonder of sharing that gift of life – that we do not have to do all this alone. And every day we know we are lucky – lucky to be together, lucky to be blessed with these two children, lucky to be free to wander, lucky to be in this happy, sunny land – but more than anything else, lucky to be alive. Camus writes, at the end of The Stranger, that “Every man alive is privileged; there is only one class of men, the privileged class. All alike would be condemned to die one day; his turn, too, would come like the others.’” I think about those statements a great deal, when I think about the people I have known who are no longer alive; and I think it is important to say that Camus did not know any more than anyone else what happens after we die. But for those who are called to God’s table of life, we are indeed all one privileged class; all other distinctions fade before this one infinitely royal gift. And all those who really love know that we are not meant only to rejoice in our own life, but in all the equally precious lives around us.