Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Attempted Seal-Watching at Beautiful Orchard Beach in the Bronx

This past Sunday, I went to Orchard Beach in the Bronx's Pelham Bay Park to hopefully see some seals (they come down from Maine during the winter). The park rangers had set up a viewing time for low tide. Unfortunately, they didn't come out of the water. The chances would have increased with a sunny day, and even after the rain stopped the skies remained cloudy.

Still, it's a lovely beach, even in winter.



Week in Seven Words #238

The conversation is largely a repetition of other ones we've had. Because his point isn't to tell me something new; it's to map out the current limits of his life, at least how he sees it. He can do this, but not that. Go there, but no farther, not for now. His words make the boundaries firmer.

Sand pounded flat by feet but not by waves. It's a sheltered harbor. The water is flat and calm and waits for people to disturb it.

The sun's glare turns everyone into silhouettes.

A preschooler balances on a fence with his father's help. He tests his father by tipping forward suddenly; will the large hands around his waist tighten and hold him steady? They do. He tells his father, "You'll drop me!" He insists on it, against all conflicting evidence; his father will drop him - it's just a matter of time.

The idea of time healing wounds - not sure about it. At least, it's not as simple as that. Because time can bring with it numbing, which isn't necessarily the same as healing.

Roots that have punched through rock and cement.

I wonder if I'm little more than a nerdy sideshow in his life. And in her life, a project that went haywire, much to her chagrin and bitter delight.

Friday, December 26, 2014

Three Short Stories That (In One Way or Another) Show the Strangeness of Day-to-Day Life

There are many things about day-to-day life that people take for granted - a stability and predictability that can be reassuring. But daily life isn't as stable, comfortable or rooted in common sense as it may appear when people coast along on it. The following are three stories that show an alien side to daily life and one's place in it.

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Week in Seven Words #237

Most of the air in the room has been absorbed into the furniture - chairs stiff with disuse, a piano that would croak at the touch of curious fingers.

"We should all be well," she says, peering at us with eyes that see nothing but cloudy shapes and light.

Old homes by the ocean criss-crossed by power lines, their bricks glowing and their gables peeling away.

In the fountain - coins, litter, and a water-logged postcard; maybe someone making a wish about the next place they'd like to visit.

The smell of cigarette smoke off a leather jacket can be attractive in passing.

A courtyard: sticky fruit on stone hexagons.

Ferns in a blue vase on a balcony, with the river below.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

The Bling Ring (2013) is a surprisingly funny, biting movie

Title: The Bling Ring
Director: Sofia Coppola
Language: English
Rating: R (mostly for language)

I was pleasantly surprised by The Bling Ring, which was funnier and sharper than I expected. It's a crime movie for the age of celebrity obsession and passive consumerism.

The characters are teenaged criminals and striking in how aggressively passive they are. They commit their crimes with minimal thought, but also with an obsessive repetitiveness. In the moments when they try to sound forceful and in command of themselves, they use passive phrases and clichés to describe their own actions (their crimes are "circumstances that happened"). They'll latch onto an opportunity and exploit it, but only if it drifts within easy reach; they'll adapt to the moment, calling on ready-made personae (as thieves, groupies, stars, wounded children, whatever).

Here's one of the teens, Nikki (Emma Watson), defending herself at the start of the movie:

I'm a firm believer in karma. And I think this situation was attracted into my life as a huge learning lesson for me. To grow and expand as a spiritual human being. I want to lead a huge charity organization. I want to lead a country one day, for all I know.

So what have these teenaged criminals done? (And keep in mind, this is based on a real-life crime spree…)

Friday, December 19, 2014

Week in Seven Words #236

Her way of preserving peace between us is to think that I'm incapable of coming up with my own ideas. My head is a bucket, basically, and other people come along and drop ideas into it. This means that when I disagree with her, it's not really out of my own willfulness; I just didn't protect the inside of my bucket-head well enough. (The alternative is to think of me as a calculating opponent, purposefully against her.)

There are relationships held together by scar tissue and not much else.

A car protesting at getting towed - its alarm going off in the early morning.

She tosses food to the birds, but not to feed them - only to get them closer to her when she begins her chase.

Her brain trips her up. She makes rapid deductions, but can't focus well. She chases down each stray piece of information no matter how irrelevant it is.

It's a theater of the academic: pants rolled at the ankles, square-framed glasses, bike and backpack, a spotty beard.

The barrel outside the store has filled with rain, and now the lamplight dances in it.

Saturday, December 6, 2014

Half-Day in Boston

From the same trip with the Cambridge morning walk and Salem in 25 photos

Boston Museum of Fine Arts



Mary Baker Eddy Library



At the library, there's the Mapparium - a huge walk-in glass globe you can stand right in the middle of. The globe dates from the 1930s, so it's a snapshot of the world then. Wasn't allowed to take photos in it, but here's a look from the website.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Week in Seven Words #235

Paintings, mirrors, glassy music, kids bobbing on waves of color and noise.

A winsome, curly-haired lawyer picking her away through old warehouses and artist lofts.

People talking about what they love or what they're interested in, without competitiveness or preening.

Wasps swooping over a green plot where Lincoln sits and listens.

Skyscrapers that look like they were made entirely of platinum group metals: ruthenium windows, iridium roofs.

Yellow brick, bright as fruit, a backdrop for trees.

In a neighborhood saturated with history, I wonder who once stood beside the lampposts or looked out the windows with the white shutters.

Friday, November 28, 2014

Week in Seven Words #234

A chair floating legs-up in a lake, like a creature from Seuss.

A building grinning through broken teeth.

A well-to-do woman from San Francisco sits beside me on the bench. She asks several questions about New York - recommendations for museums, etc. - and after each suggestion, she points out that in San Francisco there's something better. "You have fine museums," she says, as if she fears I'm deeply offended. "But…" And here she tells me another thing that's wrong with New York, in tones of gentle regret. I hope she doesn't guess how amused I am by our conversation.

The lake has a marble quality to it, light and glass as you look to the floor of the shallows and find pink rocks and twisted scrap metal.

I'm becoming better aware of what resources I can spare for others and what I should better protect. Another line of defense against those who alight on other people's emotions in a vampiric way.

To make train fare, he tries selling artwork, some of it not his own. Out of a book he's torn a detailed sketch of a pansy drawn in three colors. One dollar for it.

A morning of quiet sidewalks and still trees. The air doesn't move, and the sun pounds on my head.

Friday, November 21, 2014

Mr. Sammler's Planet: Mr. Sammler Is the Moon

(I read this novel for the Classics Club challenge.)

For much of Mr. Sammler's Planet, Artur Sammler reminds me of a gasping fish on a garbage heap. In some ways, he is also like the moon.

Why is he gasping for air?

Sammler is living on the Upper West Side of Manhattan in the 1960s. He has a keen eye for all the ways society is crumbling. He makes note of the crudeness and immaturity, the lack of dignity and stuntedness in people's behavior. As an intellectual, he is asked at one point to give a talk at a university and is soundly rejected by the audience for being old and impotent. Society, he thinks, has been given over to children and barbarians.

Had the book stayed on this level, of an elderly intellectual analyzing the defects of the society around him, it would not have been as interesting as what it becomes. Because, even as Mr. Sammler assesses the surrounding degradations, he doesn't think that he has any solutions to offer.

Friday, November 14, 2014

Week in Seven Words #232 & 233


Inside, it's quiet. There are dead plants and a warm, wet smell. A machine is whistling from another room. Rot and the promise of monsters in the middle of the afternoon.

Among flowers, a firefighter, frozen, clutches a small child.

From the border of her yard, she watched the ships pass in and out of the harbor. Even after they slid from view, she remained where she stood and observed how the water resettled in their wake.

Dashing across a road with no crosswalks, drivers unwilling to slow down or stop.

Smoke spreads from the grills, and music blares, and motors hum. Festivity means as much noise and odor as possible.

Wind sliding over bright sunny water.

They're crowing, they're pushing each other around, they've inked their baby-fine skin with flames and hearts. They're so young and so hellbent on piling experience on themselves, no matter what the cost, because they think that's the way to grow up faster.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Arsenic and Old Lace (1944): What's in the wine and in the window seat?

Title: Arsenic and Old Lace
Director: Frank Capra
Language: English
Rating: Not Rated

"Insanity runs in my family. It practically gallops."

So says Mortimer Brewster (Cary Grant), a drama critic who at the start of the movie gets married to Elaine Harper (Priscilla Lane) after years of confirmed bachelorhood. En route to their honeymoon, they stop by the house of Mortimer's kindly old aunts, Abby (Josephine Hull) and Martha (Jean Adair), who are known in their community as generous women, donating toys to poor children, visiting the sick, and performing other charitable acts.

As Mortimer discovers, after a look under their window seat in the front parlor, their idea of charity also includes killing off lonely old men. It takes some time for Mortimer to wrap his head around the fact that his aunts could be doing this.
Mortimer: What happened to him?!
Martha: He died.
Mortimer: Look, Aunt Martha, men don't just get into window seats and die!
Abby: Look now, dear, he died first.

Up until that point, Mortimer had assumed his family's madness was confined to his older brother, Teddy (John Alexander), who believes he's Teddy Roosevelt - and that his family's darker impulses were confined to his other brother Jonathan (Raymond Massey), a sadist who hasn't been seen in 20 years (but of course will show up, with Peter Lorre in tow to up the creep factor).

Meantime, Elaine - who doesn't know what's going on - is wondering why Mortimer suddenly seems so absent-minded and panicky, so unready to embark on their life of wedded bliss. (When there are too many bats in the family belfry, is wedded bliss possible?)

Arsenic And Old Lace Poster.jpg
"Arsenic And Old Lace Poster". Via Wikipedia.

Priscilla Lane has a thankless role as a woman who spends most of the movie getting shoved aside and bodily carried out of rooms. As for Cary Grant, his performance took some getting used to because it was too hammy (like, huge double-takes and expressions of HUH?). The other actors, especially Hull, Adair, Massey and Alexander, were spot-on in their roles. Also, Jack Carson in the role of a friendly but oblivious policeman.

It's a strange, funny dark comedy, which frays at the end like many comedies. There are hilarious scenes, numerous twists, and jokes that take time to develop and pay off. Fun for any time of year, but especially Halloween, if like me you prefer to avoid gory slasher/monster movies.

Friday, October 24, 2014

Autumn Hike: Franny Reese State Park and Walkway Over the Hudson

Here's a blueprint for a brilliant hike in the autumn.

Take the Metro North from Grand Central Station in NYC. The view from the train window, the Hudson River:


Get off at the train station in Poughkeepsie (last stop on the Hudson line):


Walk south, paying attention to what some of the buildings are called. (Washington Irving is a major literary figure in these parts.)


Cross the Mid-Hudson Bridge on foot (this isn't the famous pedestrian bridge in the area, but it has a footpath, so you can share the bridge with motor vehicle traffic).


Look at different signs on the bridge.


Then look north along the Hudson.

Because that other bridge you see? That's the Walkway Over the Hudson. It's the longest elevated pedestrian bridge in the world, and it's where you'll be ending your hike.


Fall foliage is stunning.


Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Week in Seven Words #230 & #231


Stolid and tall, drifting ahead of us like the mast on a ship.

Red and yellow kayaks, like slices of fruit candy, bobbing on the river.

They work hard to create the impression of a shared reality, even as their hearts splinter.

We have no solutions, only complaints. But it's reassuring to find people who complain about the same things. The shared noise is heartening.

The whine of pigeons flapping by my ears.

Fisherman by the railroad tracks, what will he find? Rubbery fish? Tires that have come alive with fins and scales?

Harried women in a chilly supermarket; they're carefully made-up, their eyes fogged.


In a battle that spans multiple eras and realms, who will win: Plants or zombies?

The pond is still and lets the sky steal across it. It's a safe place for the sky to settle down a short while. No waves or ripples will chase away the clouds.

Goal: To rush to the end of the piece and then dance away from the keyboard.

One trait I want to avoid as much as possible is fretfulness. I don't want to lie prostrate before my fear and call attention to myself with it.

He had the vague hope that if he stopped doing anything, time itself would stop. Instead it's flowing around him and nudging him along, while he struggles to keep his footing.

I like community gardens grown in old broken places. A scarred part of the city now bears vegetables and redolent plants.

Enough people say they like something, so then others like it too. And some dislike it just because too many others like it.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Salem, Massachusetts in October: 25 Photos

(From a half-day visit on Columbus Day.)

The Witch House

(It's the home of Jonathan Corwin, one of the judges involved in the Salem witch trials of the late 1600s.)

The Custom House

(At the Salem Maritime National Historic Park.)

Ropes Mansion Garden

(This garden is in back of a home dating to the early 1700s.)

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Week in Seven Words #228 & 229


Three teenagers are sitting on a bench, arms around each other, looking for the moon in a daytime sky.

The silence on the path isn't true silence. The trees are bristling, and animals are scraping unseen against dirt. My feet are crunching on loose rock. The silence is the absence of human voice.

People who tell me to "be myself" often mean "be a self that I approve of and am comfortable with."

When I read beneath the green branches, bugs fall onto my book like extra punctuation.

In part because it's dwarfed by a flag pole, one gets the sense that the old stone building, crouched on the ground, has a small room in it with a door, and that this door opens to a flight of stairs that takes you miles below the city.

Wedding photos in the park - the bride's train sweeping over fallen green leaves.

The shop, dark as a cavern, smells of soap and herbs.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Angry protective swan

In this case, a father swan swatting and hissing at the rescue worker who's trying to extract a cygnet from a fence.

Friday, September 19, 2014

Week in Seven Words #226 & 227


There's never sunlight on that door, only a cold, still shade.

A ballerina soars across a corrugated roof.

I can see in his expression when he knows he's gone too far, but decides to keep going anyway. He forces himself to enjoy his own rudeness, his own petty cruelty, because the alternative is to be flooded with shame.

Oval windows frame the reflection of trees and purple flowers.

Flopping facedown on the couch: Endurance and patience have been mostly depleted - time to recharge.

Is laughter always a fear response? I think laughter and fear are closely linked. Even when we don't think we're laughing in relief or in nervousness, the jokes we laugh at tap into our anxieties about ourselves. We laugh at things we might become or misfortunes we narrowly avoided. We laugh in acceptance of something odd that might have been dangerous, but is merely strange and possibly wonderful.

Flower-bearing trees rustling against fire escapes.


He runs his hand up and down his face, as if clearing away cobwebs from his eyes.

The smell of sweat and coffee beans. Tinny music seeping out of headphones.

I am, once again, short on compassion for myself.

He defines a happy marriage as one that hasn't ended in divorce, not seeming to realize that people may spend a lifetime together in varying states of indifference and hostility.

The air quivering, a dim light in the tunnel brightening, then the racket as the train enters the subway station.

Last light of day slanting onto an empty purple vase.

He is calm and diplomatic. Even when listening to an unreasonable request, he has the look of someone contemplating rare wisdom.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Passion Fish (1992): Rediscovering yourself after tragedy and poor decisions

Title: Passion Fish
Director: John Sayles
Language: English
Rating: R (for language)

I love the unsentimental approach to the characters in this film and the friendship that develops between them. The movie doesn't so much have a happy ending, as it has a hopeful one. The characters have grown. They're stronger, and they've found strength in their relationship with each other.

The dialogue is thoughtful and well-written, and the visuals are beautiful. There's no fake or stale Hollywood feeling in this movie. The characters are real.

Passion Fish.jpg
Passion Fish Poster. Via Wikipedia.

May-Alice (Mary McDonnell) is a soap opera star whose career ends when she gets paralyzed from the waist down in a car accident. She moves back to her old, empty family home in Louisiana, where she intends to waste away gloriously, watching TV, drinking and driving away a succession of nurses. The latest nurse to turn up at the house is Chantelle (Alfre Woodard), whose quiet, self-contained demeanor hides the fact that she's struggling with some serious problems of her own. The two women become friends, renewing their lives by making discoveries about who they can be and by helping each other. Each character has her own story arc; they develop together and independently. They aren't portrayed as types, but as real, complex people.

Both McDonnell and Woodard are wonderful in their roles. There's also a strong cast of supporting characters, including: an outdoorsman, Rennie (David Strathairn), offering awkward, heartfelt offers of companionship; an easy-going womanizer, Sugar LeDoux (Vondie Curtis-Hall), who circles around Chantelle, offering a good time with no pressure, and an understanding of what she needs; and one of May-Alice's soap opera cast members, the elegant Rhonda (Angela Bassett), who visits her with a couple of other actresses. That visit leads to a really funny monologue, where one of the actresses describes the way she gave her all to a tiny movie role, early in her career, where she had only one line and played a woman who had been probed by an alien. (She really researched that character's motivations, and found a dozen different ways to utter her one line about alien probing.)

Both May-Alice and Chantelle give themselves more fully to life as the movie goes by. The alternative is to blot themselves out with alcohol, drugs or hours of TV. They can either try to escape from themselves through self-destruction; or they can live with greater richness and variety of experience, within the constraints of past tragedies and poor choices. The way they open themselves up again to new relationships and experiences is inspiring to watch, particularly because it isn't portrayed in a cloying way.

Friday, August 29, 2014

Week in Seven Words #224 & 225


Lungs embracing the air, holding tight to the freshness of the air beside the running water.

All of the cards I come across are gushy about love and gratitude, and I wonder how many times people's feelings really match up with what they buy.

Throughout the dinner, I need to deflect nasty, passive-aggressive digs. In my mind, I pretend I'm flicking away each comment with a fork like bits of mashed potato.

They're more benevolent, because they can afford to be. Treating him well costs them nothing and gives them the pleasure of feeling above him, bestowing favors on him in angelic fashion while remaining unsullied by his human dirt.

He hears many excuses and even encouragement for obnoxious behavior, so then he gets confused and frustrated when he's punished for it.

His job is to sit hunched at a table and occasionally be pleasant.

Renovations on the hallway look surgical. Pipes like veins and capillaries, wires like exposed nerves.

Monday, August 25, 2014

East River Walk: Upper East Side, Randall's Island, Astoria (Queens)

I did a 15-mile walk yesterday starting from 86th street on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, going north along the East River, crossing the Triborough Bridge to Randall's Island, walking around a bit there, then continuing on the Triborough Bridge to Astoria (a neighborhood in Queens), then walking south through Astoria, mostly along the East River, and heading back into Manhattan on the Queensboro Bridge. (The walk was organized by this group.)

Here's the Triborough Bridge from the Upper East Side waterfront:


The bridge connects Manhattan with Randall's Island and then with Queens.


The part of Randall's Island we saw was mostly athletic fields, with some green spaces looking out over Manhattan.


The best part of this walk was the bridge. Under it:


Getting onto it:


Looking over its edge:



Friday, August 22, 2014

Six Short Stories About Different States of Mind

Title: The Balloon of William Fuerst
Author: Lowell B. Komie
Where I Read It: Legal Fictions

A short, funny story but one with a familiar pang in it, the feeling of life getting wasted on triviality. The main character is an attorney who starts to hear air escaping from his ears - "a hiss of all the useless acts." He imagines his head is a balloon, with air leaking out. How does he think he can fix the problem, without leaving a job he feels trapped in? Maybe helium is the answer! If nothing else, at least he'll sound like a new person...

Title: Bitter Grounds
Author: Neil Gaiman
Where I Read It: Fragile Things

Before reading "Bitter Grounds," I hadn't come across any zombie fic that interested me. But this story is further proof that it's never the subject matter that's the problem, but the way it's handled. Any topic can be written about in an interesting way.

This isn't a typical zombie fic. There are no rotting corpses staggering around - no brain-eating, post-apocalyptic monsters. It's more a confusing and fascinating story of escape and loss of identity, of blurred boundaries between people and between the living and the dead. It begins with a man who can't deal with his life anymore:
"In every way that counted, I was dead. Inside somewhere maybe I was screaming and weeping and howling like an animal, but that was another person deep inside, another person who had no access to the face and lips and mouth and head, so on the surface I just shrugged and smiled and kept moving."
One day, he drives and just keeps on driving, with no particular destination or purpose. And then starts to move between different identities. Through circumstances described in the story, he steps into the shoes of an anthropology professor invited to give a talk in New Orleans about tales of undead Haitian coffee girls. Nothing in this story is as it seems, and by the end, you have to wonder who is this man, and who has he met along the way? Not sure if this is a nightmare, or if he's ripped through the fragile tissues that life's made of.

Friday, August 8, 2014

Week in Seven Words #222 & 223


A couple in the park: Man and woman strolling, he pontificates, gestures broadly, makes authoritative pronouncements about things he only half-knows at best, while the woman nods, murmurs, surreptitiously checks her phone.

The enchantment of pink blossoms floating around your head.

Blonde willows and raggedy weeds by the pond.

I understand the enjoyment people get from running, but not from jogging. Running can give you a feeling of freeness. Jogging has always struck me as mechanical, like you're a machine pumping up and down.

The park is artificial, so the lakes can be drained or filled at will. The fish might be stunned out of their habitual routes and find themselves on their sides, eyeing a terrible sun.

Facing north, heads uplifted, four turtles frozen on a sunny rock.

And there he is again: The half-naked man, kneeling in the tunnel and playing the violin.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Visiting Brooklyn Heights and DUMBO

This past Sunday had ideal summer walking weather. For the most part, it wasn't too hot out; not too unrelentingly sunny. Lots of cool breezes. A great day to be outdoors. Granted, part of my trip to Brooklyn Heights was an indoor historical lecture/tour, a really good one, but after that I walked along the beautiful waterfront.

The visit began at the Clark Street subway stop in Brooklyn Heights. One of the first things I noticed is that a few of the streets have fruit names, apparently because lots of fruit used to be delivered to warehouses here. Here is Pineapple Street, with buildings of a suitable color.


A little bit north of that, between Orange and Cranberry Streets, was where the history lesson began. This was at Plymouth Church, where the famous 19th century abolitionist preacher, Henry Ward Beecher, used to take to the pulpit to speak out against slavery.


That's his statue, and to the left of him, an engraving of Lincoln, who prayed a couple of times at the church. In addition to serving as a platform for abolitionist preaching, the church was also a station on the Underground Railroad, the series of homes and other potential hiding spots that runaway slaves used to escape north.

Even in NY they weren't safe. Although slavery was abolished in NY state by 1827 and other northern states had also struck down slavery, southern slaveowners still had a claim to the escaped slaves. Northerners were obligated by law to hand them back over or risk getting fine or going to jail. There were also bounty hunters or slave catchers who actively pursued escaped slaves (and sometimes, if they didn't find who they were looking for, would capture a freeborn person who fit the description more or less). Runaway slaves generally tried to make it to Canada.

Monday, July 14, 2014

Hobson's Choice (1954): Biting humor and surprising warmth

Title: Hobson's Choice
Director: David Lean
Language: English
Rating: Not Rated

Watching Hobson's Choice made me happy. It's British comedy at its best, with brilliant characters, a tender and hilarious romance, and a satisfying ending.

Set in the late 19th century in England, the movie features Henry Hobson (Charles Laughton), who runs a bootmaking business and who abandons his shop every day to go drinking. He lets himself do this because he's got three grown daughters running the shop for him for free; the younger two are a bit flighty, but the oldest, Maggie (Brenda de Banzie), is smart and has a strong business acumen. He's counting on the fact that she'll remain a spinster and take care of him and his shop until he dies; he's also not too eager to marry off his younger daughters, Alice (Daphne Anderson) and Vicky (Prunella Scales), as he's reluctant to spend money on a wedding. In this way the movie starts: Maggie overseeing the shop and the other daughters helping out, while a talented but extremely humble boothand, Will Mossop (John Mills), toils away in the cellar to make the high-quality footwear the shop is known for. Henry Hobson, in the meantime, drinks and jokes around.

The Hobson family in Hobson's Choice

Week in Seven Words #220 & 221


Buses wheezing in the heat, looking battered and ill.

They dwell on other people's failures, because they want to justify the lack of risk-taking in their own lives and distract themselves from their profound regrets.

Broken, brown ground and a river that smells like an ocean.

Judging, measuring, comparing. Never just listening. Never accepting.

It's a precious green lawn in a neighborhood full of industrial lots, billboards and old apartment houses. Bright flowers have sprung up on it, and people hover around, starved for the simple beauty.

"Nobody jumping out of it today," he says in an odd, cheerful voice after staring for a few minutes at the Freedom Tower.

She walks with the group because she wants to improve her fitness, but she gets winded too easily and has trouble keeping up. Discouraged, she settles on a bench and smokes a cigarette.

Monday, June 30, 2014

Hopping over to Staten Island: Snug Harbor Gardens and Alice Austen House

Staten Island was the only New York City borough I'd never been to - until today.

The best way to get there is with the free ferry that leaves the southern tip of Manhattan. Some people just ride the ferry back and forth for the amazing views of the NYC harbor, Manhattan, Brooklyn, New Jersey, the Statue of Liberty, Ellis Island, Governor's Island, bridges connecting different islands… Like here, you see a bunch of helicopters against a backdrop of the Brooklyn Bridge and Manhattan Bridge:


And here's the Verrazano Bridge connecting Brooklyn and Staten Island (with a Manhattan-bound Staten Island ferry passing us by in the foreground):


You can't not take a photo of the Statue of Liberty too. It's a compulsion.


The ferry terminal on Staten Island conveniently has a bunch of bus terminals radiating off of it, with buses ready to take you to different parts of the island. This visit we stuck to the northeast part of the island, first taking the S40 bus to the Snug Harbor Cultural Center and Botanical Garden. Crossing the two-lane road from the S40 bus stop to the back entrance of Snug Harbor is a treat, because there are no traffic lights and crosswalk, and cars are zooming at you from both directions (in one direction hidden by a bend in the road). So you've got to time things just right and then hustle.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

When You Go on a Date with Someone You've Met Online...

You look them up, don't you? And what do you find?

Meet in a Public Place from Mario Contreras on Vimeo.

Week in Seven Words #218 & 219


The park smells of dogs, horses and dirt. Flowers too, but faintly.

When she discovers a crack in a tree, she stuffs it with peanuts. Let no (peanut-eating) animal have to look too hard for its food.

He's hunched over on the bench with his pudding and apple sauce while she pokes fun at him. She's not that much younger than he is, and I wonder how much of her mean-spirited teasing stems from fear - that sooner than she knows it, soft food will be dribbling out of her mouth in public places.

The outdoor bookseller waves away the pigeons that clamber on his paperbacks.

Trees with whorls on their trunks like languid eyes.

When the wind skims the Reservoir, the water seems to flinch at the cold touch.

The birds melt into the evergreens. They would like to be heard but not seen.

Monday, June 16, 2014

Four short stories about fathers

Title: Able, Baker, Charlie, Dog
Author: Stephanie Vaughn
Where I read it: American Voices

The world's too small for some personalities. (Or maybe modern Western society is too small.) The main character in "Able, Baker, Charlie, Dog" has a father who's in the military. In ways both bright and dark, he's a compelling figure: Full of fascinating stories, quirky mannerisms, lessons he wants to impart, a personality that can't be contained in a military role or, later in his life, in the role of a hardware store owner. He also drinks sometimes and doesn't control his temper. Even as she loves him, how close can his daughter be to him? He is a monumental figure in her life, but there's also a distance, as if he's always receding from her even as he looms close by.

In one scene, he crosses a wide frozen river one night after he's been drinking, as his daughter watches from the shore; all at the same time, the scene is tense and humorous and poignant. He survives, but does something in him die, given that he settles in quietly to his chain of hardware stores, and his smoking and drinking and slow death? Would it have been more epic of him to disappear into or across the icy river?

Friday, June 13, 2014

Walking in Washington Heights

Tourist maps of NYC that I've come across often don't include Northern Manhattan (starting from around Harlem and north of that). And yet, there are many gems in this part of the city. Last Sunday, with a group that organizes all kinds of walks in and around the city, I visited some places in the Washington Heights neighborhood that I hadn't known about or looked into before, even though I'd been to the Heights many times.




The first stop was the Trinity Church Cemetery of Upper Manhattan, which is associated with Trinity Church on Wall Street in Lower Manhattan. In the mid-1800s, Trinity Church ran out of room to bury people in Lower Manhattan, so this Washington Heights cemetery became an extension.


Among the people interred there are Ralph Ellison (Invisible Man author), Clement Clarke Moore (who wrote "Twas the Night Before Christmas"), Jerry Orbach (Law & Order just wasn't the same without him), Alfred Tennyson Dickens (one of Charles Dickens' sons, who died in NYC's Astor Hotel while participating as guest of honor in the Dickens Centennial), and John James Audubon, whose tombstone unsurprisingly features different kinds of birds.


Former NYC mayor Ed Koch, who didn't want to leave Manhattan after death, also secured a burial spot here; the cemetery is non-denominational and the only active one in Manhattan (though at this point, people can arrange to get interred only above ground in a mausoleum). Koch is buried near an entrance to the cemetery grounds called the Jewish Gate.


The stone has a verse of the Shema Prayer inscribed on it, "Shema Yisrael," which is of huge significance to Jews; even those who aren't particularly observant often know these words and recite them.

Also, Koch chose to inscribe the final words of journalist Daniel Pearl on the tombstone. It surprised me when I first saw it. Part of what it conveys to me is that Koch saw his Jewishness as central to who he was not only in times of peace but also in times of war and persecution (for instance, he had served as an infantryman in Europe during World War II). He had specified what he wanted on his tombstone before his death, and interestingly, he wound up dying exactly 11 years after Pearl - on the same date (February 1st).

Prior to seeing his tombstone, one of the people in the group jokingly wondered if it would have his slogan, "How'm I doin'?" inscribed on it.

Week in Seven Words #216 & 217


No one knows who he is, only that he's fallen to the pavement and is sobbing so hard he can't speak.

Garbage bags bulging with skirts, blouses and sweaters.

Footsteps echo in the atrium, and faint voices, but all the sounds arrive as from a distance. Birds skim the vaulting glass. There's no breeze, but the trees rustle.

He considers the model of masculinity people tried to make him live up to: No feelings, except for anger and physical appetites. No tenderness. An internal world made up of steel girders with huge blank spaces in between.

Knowledge is a treasure to them and a pleasure to all the senses. They taste new facts. They savor what they learn.

She looks perpetually stunned by the indifference and cruelty around her. The magnitude of it empties her eyes. She's left with a smile that creases her face but never reaches her eyes.

Actors try to banish their self-conscious impulses. They howl and prance in public. They pretend to be jaguars and squirrels.


I'm uncomfortable among people who are being cued to do the same thing at the same time: chant, scream, clap or stomp their feet. If they're a large crowd and look like they're really into it, this puts me on edge even more.

At her age, she's both exploring new opportunities and also warning younger people not to make the same mistakes she made. But they don't all agree with her on what is or isn't a mistake.

She usually likes it when other people are worse off than she is. At the same time, she doesn't want to be uncaring. So she offers comfort and advice. Only there's a bitter satisfaction in her tone that make people turn away from her anyway.

Branches spasm in the wind.

Her first impulse is to say it's too difficult and to back off. But then she weighs the disappointment that might come from a failed attempt against the greater regret of never trying.

The ground is trembling with the trains passing beneath it.

The vestibule is soaked in the heavy smell of wet coats.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Where is the boy going in Les quatre cents coups (1959)?

Title: The 400 Blows (Les quatre cents coups)
Director: François Truffaut
Language: French
Rating: Unrated

At the heart of this beautiful movie is a boy who's unloved. Antoine Doniel's mother tolerates him, or tries to. His father is friendly with him, but they don't have a close relationship. At school, Antoine repeatedly gets in trouble. The one bright spot in his life is his friend, René, who seems a light and friendly spirit, out for some adventure.

The movie isn't melodramatic. It isn't always sad. For a boy of Antoine's age, there are pleasures and fun pranks. He can try to strike out on his own. During one part of the movie, he's staying with René without his parents or René's parents knowing; he's just dropped off the grid. He's walking a fine line between the pleasurable part of running away from home, the childish fantasy of it, and the darker side of it. Who at home cares that he's gone?

Antoine Doniel from Les quatre cents coups

In the movie, there's a funny scene where a group of boys jog through the streets of Paris behind their gym teacher, and then in twos and threes they peel away, until the man is basically jogging on this own. That's the playful side of escaping authority. The movie also shows the dark and more desperate side of it. Antoine's truancy eventually leads to petty crime and lands him in a juvenile correctional facility. At one point, during an outdoor sports game, he flees. He's heading for the sea, which he's never seen. But once he's there on the beach, where else is there to go? Once you've reached the limits of yourself, what comes next? The sea no longer represents escape; it's another barrier.

Antoine can't run away from himself. All of his problems are seeded in him. He's long taken into himself the knowledge that he's unloved and unwanted, and he carries it everywhere. What can he make of himself when he has all of this in him? He doesn't need to think about it or talk about it for it to be there. The authorities offer him nothing. Whether it's the police or a psychiatrist or a teacher, they set up pens to put people in. What Antoine carries in him doesn't change, and what he longs for doesn't materialize.

At different points, he tries to take from other people to make himself free and whole, to reinvent himself perhaps or start over. He plagiarizes a paper from a famous writer and steals a typewriter to pawn off for cash. His experiences blur the lines between childhood and adulthood. If only he were an adult, that would mean freedom, because for most of the movie he hangs onto his optimism about adulthood as a liberating force. But take a look at the adults around him. In what sense are they wise or self-sufficient or free? He's running from them too and what they represent.

The movie starts with the camera prowling the streets of Paris. In the shots, The Eiffel Tower is always obstructed or glimpsed from strange angles. There is, from the start, a feeling of hunger. The camera keeps going down one street after another, but where is there to go? After he reaches the sea, Antoine has an expression on his face that says, among other things, "Is this it?"

*The image links back to its source (Flixster Community).

Monday, May 19, 2014

Week in Seven Words #214 & 215


Thoughts of taxes are like barnacles I want to scrape off of my brain.

One of those wild days when we talk about ideas for hours. I feel closest to him then.

He trudges along in his karate uniform, with a violin in one hand and a tennis racket slung over his shoulder.

I'm an ear, and she's a mouth.

Having a ready-made role to step into can be a relief, but what are you sacrificing for the extra comfort?

Their arrogance keeps them from confronting the fears that have hollowed them out.

This is the arrangement they've come up with: He's cut down on his leisure time, and she's compromised her dignity.


For years, he hasn't dared to dream about anything.

There are fascinating stories behind each element on the table.

Three small identical dogs, leashed to a bike rack, peer into the bakery that promises so many treats.

Toddlers want to go at their own pace, examining sidewalk cracks and clods of dirt, and not just be tugged along all the time.

Throwing pebbles, a child tries to knock birds out of a tree. Some twigs crackle, but the birds stick around.

With his finger, chasing the last of the whipped cream in the paper cup.

He continues to tip his chair back, frightened but excited about the moment of reckoning: a mastery of balance or a humiliating fall.

Friday, May 2, 2014

The First Walk That Felt Like Spring - Central Park (4/20/14)

A couple of weeks ago, I took an awesome walk in Central Park, starting from the south, going north past the lake, through the Ramble, and alongside the Reservoir, to the Conservatory Garden, then the Harlem Meer, followed by an exploration of the North Woods.

Here's the lake:


The view, when crossing an inlet of the lake to go into the Ramble:



Friday, April 25, 2014

Week in Seven Words #212 & 213


A young tree strait-jacketed by ice.

In black and white film: the grace of a ballerina and the grip of polio.

A snow drift has swallowed up another small business.

Sinking a fork into a marble chocolate cheesecake.

It's scary when you realize how much other people have staked their happiness on you, convincing you along the way that you're responsible for their moods.

This is the dynamic at the table: there are those who can do no wrong, those who can do nothing right, and those who are judged right or wrong without consistency, based on how their hair looks at a given moment or on what shirt they picked out to wear.

Sometimes at a restaurant the best moment is when the food just arrives. It looks delicious. At that moment, you think there can be nothing wrong with it.

Friday, April 11, 2014

A sunny walk along the Hudson River on Manhattan's west side

Last Sunday was a gorgeous day. Sunny, warm for several hours, with a spring-like feeling (finally). I joined an organized group walk of several miles that made its way along the Hudson River from Manhattan's 79th Street Boat Basin to the South Ferry station at the southern tip of the island.

We begin with the Boat Basin off of Riverside Park.


Then head south. The landscape still looks mostly like kindling. But the weather is wonderful.


On Riverside South, which is the Hudson shoreline between 72nd and 59th streets, there are interesting finds, like the remnants of the New York Central Railroad transfer bridge, which had been built in the early 1900s to take train cars across the river to New Jersey.


There's also art on display.


Further south at Pier 96 on 55th street, there's a giant wine bottle, and in it a replica of a Queen Mary state room. This is Malcolm Cochran's sculpture, "Private Passage."


Looking at it at the time, I thought it was a cross between a bottle and a submarine, and that it tries to capture some of the romance of messages traveling by bottle, only there would be people in this one instead. It has a strong sci-fi vibe.