Blue Roofs

Baptist church, San Juan.

Last month, my oldest son and I spent a week in Puerto Rico volunteering with Mennonite Disaster Service.

I first heard about MDS in 2005 in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. I subsequently learned they have a strong reputation within the disaster-relief world, largely due to the fact that they draw upon the Mennonite community for volunteers, many of whom have hard construction skills. At the time we had a newborn so running off for a week without my family was unfeasible, but I bookmarked MDS in the back of my mind.

Fast forward to 2018, where a combination of headlines, my son turning 16 (the minimum age for MDS work), and my dad’s passing inspired me to sign up. There was something else too. Looking at the world around me I notice the two commodities in scarcest supply are health and wealth, and it’s dawned on me that maybe I need to do more to help those who don’t possess what I take for granted. A common game to play with kids is, If you could have any superpower what would it be? The usual answer is the ability to fly or turn invisible. But lately I’ve wondered if maybe some of us wake up with powers every morning but don’t even realize it.

Somewhere between Cayey and Aibonito.

MDS has ongoing projects in Aibonito and Utuado, both in the central mountains of Puerto Rico, and Ponce, on the southern coast. I had been very concerned about the heat — real-feel temperatures in Ponce can break 100 — but as luck would have it we were assigned to Aibonito, which is nicknamed “the Fridge of Puerto Rico” for its cool climate. We arrived on a Saturday and, after waiting a few hours in San Juan for the rest of our party to arrive, drove into the mountains to Aibonito, 2,400 feet above sea level.

I soon learned Aibonito is home to a substantial Mennonite community, which includes a parochial school and a hospital. Our hosts, Harry and Linda, had restored what was once the hacienda on an old sugar plantation. Linda’s father had been a leading figure in town and she had grown up in the casa. Years later, she returned to the island to learn the house had fallen into bad disrepair; one thing led to another, and the couple stayed to renovate it. I didn’t know what to expect before arriving — I guessed we might be sleeping on bunk beds in a trailer — so to me staying in a historic early 20th-century plantation house was five-star accommodations.

A closed special-education school in Aibonito.

Last year, as a result of its ongoing financial crisis, Puerto Rico closed 167 schools and another 265 are scheduled to be shut down soon. According to the PR education secretary, enrollment is declining by 20,000 students every year and more than half of the island’s schools have less than a 60-percent occupancy rate. We saw three different shuttered schools in the seven days we were on the island.

Only happy when it rains.

Because my son and I were the only ones to bring rain gear, we volunteered to work outside on Monday, which is when “hurricane remnant” Beryl hit the island. Hurricane Maria had torn the roof off the largest building at the Academia Menonita Betania, the local parochial school. Getting the Academia into functioning condition before the fall was a priority, and our project leader John was staring at a hard Tuesday deadline for a pump truck and cement mixer to arrive and pour concrete for the footing of the new roof. Unfortunately, the forms — the molds for the concrete — hadn’t been completed, so the three of us worked in Beryl’s downpour, climbing and hammering on second-floor scaffolds. We finished the following sunny morning and the concrete was poured successfully. Steel trusses will arrive in August with the roof following afterward.

Once the mad scramble to finish the forms was done, we didn’t have much to do beyond stand around and watch the concrete crew work.

The rest of the week we worked with the others in our group (there were five of us, along with John) to complete work at one house — paneling with T1-11, doing finish trim, hanging doors — and install the metal roofing on another. This second house, located in the bush far west of town, was the highlight for me as I’d always wanted to install a steel roof.

Blue roofs are an ubiquitous sight on the island; FEMA has distributed 126,000 blue tarps and the US Army Corps of Engineers has installed temporary roofing on almost 60,000 homes, though neither FEMA nor anyone else can give specific numbers on how many roofs need replacement. Bear in mind that neither FEMA nor the Corps has actually replaced any roofs — that’s been left to either homeowners or volunteers.

We installed the fascias and gutters too.

Because building codes aren’t well enforced on the island, MDS has its own engineer-designed protocols for rebuilding, many of which echo Fortified techniques. Studs are anchored to the foundation and beams are strapped to the studs; plywood is screwed (not nailed) to the beams and joists, and a weatherproof sheeting is laid over the plywood before the steel roof is screwed down with more than a thousand screws. Overkill for sure, but meant to survive any future Cat 5 storm that blows off the sea.

The homeowner was living temporarily in his parents’ house across the street, taking care of both his elderly father and his brother, who is wheelchair bound with multiple sclerosis. He and his wife cooked lunch for us everyday — following it with some of the best cafĂ© con leche I’ve ever tasted — and they couldn’t have been more gracious. They struck me as good, honest people who’d been dealt some bad cards, and all of us were grateful that providence — or maybe Providence — had aligned the teeth of our cosmic gears.

The beach in San Juan. Actual color.

Strange as it might sound, by the end of the week I felt energized and refreshed, almost as if I had been on vacation and not making forms or screwing down roofing. And, in fact, one of the best ways to help Puerto Rico is for tourists simply to return. While damage from Maria is prevalent, PR is far from any sort of post-apocalyptic setting — one night, my son and I ate at the McDonalds in Aibonito — and unemployment on the island is 9.3 percent, still staggeringly high by US standards but the lowest rate for PR since 2000. MDS isn’t the only relief group active on the island; at the airport we saw Mormon volunteers as well as gaggles of teenagers belonging to various groups, and there are many opportunities for voluntourism as well.

For once I’m too humbled to have any grand takeaways about the experience, though it warmed this shaggy steppenwolf’s heart to be surrounded by folks acting upon their faith to help others in very tangible ways. I truly believe you make the world you live in — if thoughts become actions, then our shared reality is an expression of our individual minds. The implications of this can be both disturbing and hopeful, and while I’m by nature inclined to dwell upon the former, I make it a point to focus on the good.


South Beach, Miami, FL.

My family and I visited Miami. We had never been.

We went to

Biscayne National Park.

and saw

Biscayne National Park.

and also a manatee feeding alongside a dock but in the photos it looks like a submerged log.

We went snorkeling and saw

Snorkeling in Biscayne National Park.

Snorkeling in Biscayne National Park.

My oldest snapped those two photos with his disposable. The sea fans are every shade of purple and violet you can imagine.

The next day, me and this hot mama

Fire woman you're to blame.

rented bicycles with our sons. We rode them through Bill Baggs Cape Florida State Park and saw

Bring us the girl and wipe away the debt.


Go go Godzilla.

Miami is overrun with iguanas. They’re everywhere — climbing palms, sunning themselves in the grass. Not just the darker kind seen here but also bright green ones like you see in pet stores. Once while we were riding, a herd of iguanas stampeded across the sidewalk in front of us. Let me stress those words again: a herd of iguanas.

In South Beach, I went on an art-deco tour.

No gods or kings. Only Man.

Remember that racy Obsession ad from the ’80s?

Could you pass the sunscreen?

It was shot on the — heh — backside of the Breakwater’s sign.

Breakwater, South Beach.

The deco buildings of Miami Beach were originally painted shades of gray, beige, or off-white. In the 1970s when many of them were threatened by demolition, a member of the Miami Design Preservation League attempted to enlist public support for the buildings by concocting a bright palette of pastel colors. Eventually these colors transferred from the buildings to local fashion, both of which were immortalized by Michael Mann in Miami Vice.

We swam a lot in Miami. Ate a lot. Later we went home.

Miami skyline.

But I want to go back.

The Incompetent Photographer

Biarritz, 1994.

Over at the WSJ, Kevin Sintumuang tells the story of a young man — a young man who goes backpacking through Europe only to return with terrible photos. Get out of my memory hole, Kevin Sintumuang!

In my quest for frame-worthy shots, I came away with a handful of boring ones: A street. A bridge. A church tower. An empty field. Another church tower. … But years later, flipping through the mix of matte and glossy 4-by-6 prints, I experienced my biggest travel-photography epiphany: The more you document seemingly insignificant details on a trip, the more vivid the memories.

See the top right corner of this website? The part where it says I’m “a writer, photographer, and historian?” I sometimes write stuff that doesn’t stink and I’m proud of my accomplishments as a historian, but I often feel the word photographer should be in air quotes. For years I wasted pounds of silver halide shooting empty landscapes from wide angles in an effort to capture the spirit of a place, only to end with distant and impersonal ghost towns that showcased nothing except my own detachment. I actually studied photography in college and though infatuated with Ansel Adams, somehow still managed to make the view from a summertime beach in Biarritz — populated by topless girls, no less — chilly, gray, and blurry, as you can see in the above taken during my 1994 European rove. I filled whole albums with castles and bridges and cathedrals. Cold stones, cold images.

Like Sintumuang, it took me more than a decade of thumbing through old albums or browsing desktop file folders to realize the most appealing shots were those featuring people or animals and often up close, not from some removed point.

Which isn’t to say landscapes aren’t worthwhile — just that I have to do better. I took hundreds of photos on a 1992 trip through the southwest, and yet the best of the bunch is a snap of my brother, diminutive against the vastness of the Grand Canyon:

Grand Canyon

(I also like, because this is a scan of a print, how age has washed it through a natural Instagram filter.)

And occasionally loneliness is the objective, like this 2001 shot of a foggy early morning hike to Hadrian’s Wall.

On the trail to Hadrian's Wall.

So-so, if you can overlook the way too-dark tree trunks.

I remain a poor photographer. I fancy myself a decent composer, yet lighting confounds me and my post-production editing is atrocious. But these days, my more compelling subject matter often offsets my technical shortcomings.

New Hampshire.


The Kuhls went to Ireland. It was a trip we’ve discussed for years — I had never been — and serendipitously Mrs. Kuhl was engaged to speak at a conference in London. Speech well received, we hopped a Ryanair flight from Gatwick to Dublin.

We spent two days in Dublin — Book of Kells, Guinness Storehouse, many pints of Bulmers — then drove a lonely single-lane road (which isn’t even printed on some maps) over and through the mountains south of the city to Glendalough in the Wicklow Mountains National Park. The Glendalough Valley is the site of a monastic settlement founded in the 5th century. The cemetery is still in use.

I love the mohawk of trees edging the hill to the right.

A river runs through the valley, forming two lakes along the way. Visitors can hike the length of the valley to the feeding waterfall tumbling down the rocks. The terrain is almost Pleistocene.

Feral goats haunt the western woods of the valley, descendants of livestock raised by the workmen of a 19th-century lead and zinc mine. My son was sharp enough to spot a herd in the trees, so we crept up the slope to snap some pictures.

We stayed one night at Killiane Castle outside of Wexford. It’s a crumbling 15th-century castle with an attached 17th-century farmhouse. Guests sleep and eat in the farmhouse but you can tour the castle ruins. This is the view from the topmost tower, a precipitous structure without banister or parapet.

You can see cows and hens and there is an apple tree in the garden — all of which contributed to the fantastic breakfast we had. Even packaged produce like juice and ice cream we found in museum cafeterias originated in close proximity to wherever we were. You can’t not be a locavore in Ireland.

We were the only guests at the castle that evening so we had the run of the place. Kathleen Mernagh and her family are incredibly gracious hosts. Highly recommended.

Our boys have grown into terrific travelers, the result of vacations to Disney and countless long weekends away. They’re good-humored and fun, and even when they grow tired or cranky, it’s nothing food or a nap or a small treat can’t fix. We’re crazy about them.

When they’re big, I hope they remember the trips.

Old Terminal, New Purpose

The Port Authority wants to transform the sleek TWA terminal at JFK International Airport into a small hotel with a complex of stores and eateries:

After a bankrupt TWA was bought by American Airlines in 2001, the terminal closed. Jet-Blue Airways eventually built a new facility around the Saarinen-designed building. Since then, it has sat empty. Attempts to find a tenant fell short. So in 2008, the Port Authority decided to spend $20 million to remove asbestos and restore the interior to better appeal to developers.

Most of the story is behind WSJ’s pay wall but you can click over to the slideshow.

I hope they do something with it; the spy-jazz curves of the terminal scream for a restaurant and bar, and with most airport saloons nowadays kept past security, it’s often tough to find a place to meet when picking up or dropping off. It would definitely tilt my preference toward Jet Blue when booking if I could begin or end my journey with some Dr. No ambiance not unlike that of the Encounter at LAX.

But what’s notable here is that the Port Authority is actually investing in a historic property. By bringing it up to modern standards, they’ve reduced the risk for potential first-time tenants, who would otherwise have to do that work on their own or at least negotiate renovations with the PA, both of which would cost money the tenant may not recoup. And, even if the tenant should fail or leave, the terminal will still be usable by future tenants, keeping the PA on track to eventually see a return on that $20 million. This stands in contrast to the litigious breed of preservationist, who refuses to spend for anything beyond lawyers’ fees but then acts confused when no one wants to purchase a leaky, asbestos-filled ruin.

Historic preservation doesn’t require lawsuits or special designations of status. It’s very easy. If you want to save an old building, all you have to do is buy it and take care of it.

Surviving Disney

Because you can drag your kids to only so many science museums and historical sites before they just want to plummet down a water slide, our family recently spent a week at Walt Disney World. My folks took me there twice as a child, yet I enjoy it so much more as a parent. There’s lots to do because — and this is something its detractors never seem to understand — Disney World is a giant playground. As an obsessive-compulsive, I also admire the verisimilitude of, say, a centuries-old facade fashioned from concrete and fiberglass; and logistically, WDW is much, much less taxing than taking children to a city like New York or Philadelphia or Boston. Enjoyable as those places are, I feel the tension easing from my shoulders more so in Orlando.

Nevertheless, Walt Disney World presents one dire peril that must be endured.

The food.

WDW is well-known for serving atrocious slop, particularly at the Magic Kingdom. Disney has responded by including more unfried foods (like wraps) to the menus of the counter-service eateries. And, perhaps to bump up the average, they’ve also added more fine-dining experiences to the parks, but these are useless unless you make reservations at least six or even twelve months ahead of time. Le Cellier may be terrific but I wouldn’t know — like a lot of people, I’ve never passed through its doors.

Having suffered on previous sojourns, this trip I blazed a bold strategy for eating, which, like Arne Saknussemm, I now share with anyone intrepid enough to follow us.

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