Posted by: Mark | February 24, 2009

Chapel Talk: The Magic Batteries

At my school, we all convene once a week as a community for chapel. Once every month that time in chapel is a Mass service, as we are a Catholic school, but the other 3 times/month features a speaker from the school community who volunteers to share their thoughts.

Truth be told, I love giving chapel talks. I find it a great opportunity to share myself with my school in a way that is genuine and hopefully entertaining, largely with the intent of getting students to look a bit more closely at their own lives.

So today I delivered my annual chapel talk. I always sign up for one each year, I look forward to it each year, and now I am done. Oh, and as an added bonus, I also tend to bring in and perform my own reflection song at the end of the chapel talk. I did an acoustic version of Sufjan Stevens’ “Chicago,” which was largely inspired by the video I posted at the end of the talk.

It’s long, and not as good in writing as it is delivered, but here is my chapel talk for the academic year 2008-2009, in what is by far going to probably be the longest post on my blog, ever: The Magic Batteries.

“I am a pretty avid NPR listener. For those of you who don’t know, NPR is a radio station that features primarily news shows with minimal music. Being an NPR listener puts me firmly in the “nerd” column.
A thing that they do on NPR is a series called “This I Believe.” Basically, people write in essays about what they believe in, and the show has a huge range of who gets featured, from really famous people to people you’ve never heard of.
So one day I was driving and I heard a particularly memorable “This I Believe.” It came from a 5 year old kid, writing about the things that he believed in. It was cute and charming. You know, he’d said like “I believe that all people are good,” and “I believe in ice cream.” Finding myself completely agreeing with him on both accounts, I came one step closer to admitting to myself that I’m actually a 5 year old kid as well, just trapped in a 26 year old body.
There’s one thing that this little guy said that particularly meshed with me. He said “I believe in magic.” And after thinking about that for a while, I found myself saying to myself “you know what? I believe in magic too.”
I’ve had many moments in my life that were magical and that have cemented my belief in magic, but by far the most magical of them all took place about 4 years ago.

I was living in Baltimore, MD, and I had just graduated from college and I was at my first teaching job. I was working my butt off: teaching, coaching, and getting my masters at night. My girlfriend G—–, who I had dated all of college, was living up in New York City working in the fashion world. A quick geography lesson for all of you non-East Coasters. The East Coast is a place with a lot of cities that are all pretty close to each other: Baltimore, Washington DC, Philadelphia, New York City, Boston, etc etc. There’s a famous highway called 95 that connects all of these cities together. From New York to Baltimore was about a 4 hour trip on 95, basically driving all the way up through New Jersey.
In living in Baltimore, I obviously wanted to see G—- as much as I could, so I tended to go to New York City a lot. We tried to see each other at least twice a month, but it typically ended up being three times a month, with me traveling to New York twice, and her coming to Baltimore once. (It makes sense: there are at least two times as many cool things to do in New York as there are in Baltimore.)
Through the wonders of the Internet, I discovered that the cheapest way to get from Baltimore to New York was to take the Chinatown bus. I’m assuming that none of you have heard of the Chinatown bus, so let me explain. The Chinatown Bus is a name that is given to about 5 different bus companies, all of which are run by Chinese businesses. These buses go up and down the East Coast, stopping from Chinatown to Chinatown, picking people up and dropping them off. The price couldn’t be beat: $20 one-way to NY from Baltimore, $35 roundtrip. (As a comparison, the train was about $130 one way, and driving with gas and tolls and parking ended up at least $50 one way). So it was obviously the most economic option out there.
The downside is that the Chinatown bus is incredibly sketchy. First off, there are no official stops. You know, like there are no signs on the road of wherever. They just had a designated corner that they’d show up to. They only loosely scheduled their arrival times. I have seen buses show up an hour early, and still leave, and also up to three hours late. The Chinatown bus usually smells bad, it has a high rate of breaking down on the freeway, and buying a ticket doesn’t even necessarily guarantee that you have a seat! I have witnessed people, with tickets in their hands, left on street corners because the bus was too full.
So anyway, I ended up taking the Chinatown bus a lot, and it’s not the most pleasant thing in the world. They show bad old kung fu movies the whole time, which would be cool except all the speakers are broken and it sounds like a duck is choking on a sea urchin the whole time. It’s the type of bus where some people will just decide that it’s a good idea to sing along to whatever song they’re listening to, like really loud.
So after two round trips to NYC I realize I need to come up with a plan to survive the Chinatown bus, so I go out and invested in a Discman. I didn’t have an ipod at the time, and this is basically a portable CD player. I bought some batteries and would listen while all on the bus, while reading or napping or thinking or whatever.
The presence of my Discman made the trip much more pleasant. After about 3 months of the trip, I began to notice something kind of weird was going on, dare I say, magical. The battery power on my Discman was still showing 100%. It was one of those types that has a filled in battery that is in three parts on its display, and so when it’s full all three parts are dark, and when it’s losing power you steadily lose one part, then another, and then they’re all gone and your batteries are dead. So anyway, I’ve been riding the Chinatown bus for 3 months, and basically listening to my Discman every second that I was on the bus, and I still had full batteries.
Let’s do some math for a second. I was averaging 2 trips to New York a month, so that’s 6 trips in 3 months. Each trip was 4 hours each way, so 8 hours round trip. 6 trips x 8 hours each round trip = a total of 48 hours of Discman usage, and my batteries were still full. That’s pretty impressive. I was working with some powerful batteries. I didn’t really say anything to anyone, and didn’t ever really remember it until the weekends when I’d take the bus.
Fast forward ahead. We are now at 5 months of Chinatown bus rideage, and the batteries are still full. 5 months is 10 round trips, so we’re talking 80 hours of usage. That is the equivalent of over 3 days of uninterrupted music, and the batteries were still full. It was at this moment that I started to realize that I was in the presence of magic. These were no regular batteries: they were magic batteries. I was very excited, but also very nervous about this prospect. From what I understand about magic and spells, spells are very sensitive and tempermental, and you don’t really want to screw with things. So, I was tempted to go and open up the Discman and check out the batteries, but was afraid that I would break the magical spell. I didn’t even remember the brand of battery, which was too bad because I really wanted to write the company a letter and thank them for hiring a wizard with a beard who was putting these amazing spells on their batteries. I didn’t mention the magic batteries to a single person. I was too nervous that I’d break the spell.
And it continued like that. I finally got to 8 months with the magical batteries before I cracked and told someone. Again, a quick math check. 8 months is 16 round trips, 16 times 8 = 128 hours, over 5 days of battery usage, and the magical batteries were still full. It was amazing. I had to tell someone or I was gonna burst. So I was up in New York with G—–, it was the spring, we had a beautiful day together walking around the city, being in love, it was great. And so we go out to a really nice dinner together, and we’re staring into each other’s eyes, and I tell her “G—–, I’ve got something really important I want to tell you. I’ve been wanting to say it for a while, but I was too nervous. So here goes. I think that I have magical batteries in my Discman.” Needless to say, G—– did not think that this was as important as I did.
It was just shy of 10 months that the batteries lost the first 1/3 of power. The 2nd third fell about 3 months, and it was at 16 ½ months, or about 256 hours of usage, almost 11 days of Discman operation, that the magical batteries finally expired.

I look back to those magical batteries with wonder and awe. Now it may sound insignificant, but I need to put this in the larger context. I was not a very happy guy in Baltimore. I was working really hard, but I was really really lonely. Baltimore is a weird city in that very few people move there, and few people leave, so basically everyone knows everyone, and newcomers stand out. I didn’t really have any friends, I lived in a depressing apartment complex with a lot of unhappy people, and I basically was working so hard to keep my mind distracted from feeling lonely. And on the weekends, I would escape up to New York, where there was life and energy and G—– and other friends from college. It was like stepping into another world. And that Chinatown bus ride was the vehicle that took me from the one world to the next, and I think that the Magical Batteries were a gift given to me, to make that trip from one world to the next as pleasant as it could be. The Magical Batteries provided me with uninterrupted music so I could have a soundtrack to my thoughts as I mentally shifted from my Baltimore world to my New York escape. It sounds like a stretch, but in some ways that Magical Batteries were a bit like a guardian angel.

In fact, I think I need to recorrect my original premise behind this talk. I started by saying that I believe in magic, and I do, but I actually use a different word to describe these amazing little inexplicable miracles that happen in our lives. Some people call it magic, some people call it serendipity, luck, fortune, fate, karma, whatever….the word I use is “grace.” Since I believe in God, I tend to look at these little moments that seem so small and insignificant but for some reason become so big and powerful as a time when God is speaking directly to me, and reminding me that it’s all good. That there’s a plan out there in this universe, that everything is going to work out fine.

I’ve had tons of moments of magic, or grace, or whatever you want to call them. Right after we got Augustus I was standing with him in my backyard, trying to potty train him. This is embarrassing to admit, but you’re supposed to use a word or phrase with a dog so that they learn when you want them to go to the bathroom. Most say something like “potty” or whatever, but I say to Augustus “get the poop out.” So there I am in my back yard with my little puppy, and I’m chanting “get the poop out,” and then I hear this buzzing overhead and I look up there’s a hummingbird flying right about my head. It drops down to be like right in front of my face, and just hangs out there for like 10 seconds. Goose and I both stared at it, and it felt like the world stopped. It was a little miracle, a moment of magic and grace. I can’t explain to you why, but in that moment everything made sense. I heard it in the buzz of the hummingbird’s wings, and I saw it in bird and in my dog’s curious eyes, that I live in a universe that is full of love for everyone and everything. It actually sounds a bit cheesy when you say it aloud, but that’s how grace is. You can’t describe it, you just feel it.

The best part about this is that no one has a monopoly on this magic. In other words, we are all capable of opening up our eyes and reveling in the small miracles of the world around us.

So my advice to end my chapel talk…Life is tough guys, while there’s a lot of fun and laughter, it’s also stressful and confusing and full of sadness, but every now and then something small and magical happens that serves as a reminder of the goodness that exists in the world, and that exists for you! You may find your moment in the form of a hummingbird, or batteries, or whatever. So as you go through your busy life, keep your eyes and ears open for these moments, because they can be fun and inspiring, and you may find yourself believing in magic too.

Thank you.”



  1. I miss chapel talks! This one’s pretty amazing, I have to say.

    On a different note, I heard that the Chinatown buses (at least, the ones between Boston and NYC) are run by rival drug companies. My friend claims she was on a bus in which the drivers were involved in a shoot-out. I usually take Bolt Bus.

  2. Thank you. I wish I had been in the audience when you delivered this talk. These are the moments in life we need to remember, the times when we appreciate the wonder of our world. I hope your students took something away from what you shared with them. I did.

    Jenny Luca.

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