Sunday, September 11, 2016

NY missive no 142 - Some summer scenes

Quite some Summer. Dominican Republic with tía D, Summer camp here in Queens for the boys interspersed with city weekends (wobbly starts on bicycles etc), and then London and Devon.

New York weekends

JNH’s imagination is heightened in moments of transition. So it was the last weekend of Summer, at the end of the long holidays and before he started 1st grade. As we came back over the Triborough bridge on the M60 bus from Harlem he recalled how this was the bridge that the herd of bison were travelling over.

On other occasions, in Astoria Park, the trundling traffic on the bridge overhead as it reaches down into Queens was, for him, a herd of stampeding bison from China. They kept coming, and coming, thousands of them. And now here we were bang in the middle of them on a bus. Nose pressed to the windows he watched the cars overtaking us and the ones we overtook. The slow ones were tired from their long journey, but on they ran.

A river swim in Devon

As the tide goes out, you can swim from a jetty near the mouth of the River Avon to Bantham Beach. I say swim, but it’s more like get swept. Mum and I donned unflattering wetsuits and J swam without one, used to it from many swims in the Devon water, and in we went. Back on the shore were C, CMH, JNH and Dad. We’d been crabbing on the jetty, the kids patiently luring four or five crabs with strips of raw bacon hooked onto their lines, who got to swim about in small buckets for a while before being tipped back into the river. There were two pulsing jellyfish as well, scooped up in nets as they floated by.

CMH is four and a half now, which means he’s a little boy in many respects but still clings to babyhood at certain moments. This was one of them. He was distraught at me wading into the wide river and being whisked away by the current – separation anxiety played out in rushing water. As the current carried me away towards the beach, for a while I could hear his crying, and had those familiar mixed feelings of guilt combined with “this is my time, I will enjoy, this, will enjoy.” And of course soon the crying was out of earshot, and I did enjoy the rest of the swim, even though once out of the water on the beach I jogged (in that unflattering wetsuit) across the sand dunes to the Bantham carpark to meet him and the others. C had calmed him down by feeding him a bunch of grapes, and all was forgiven.

Subiendo la loma, bajando la loma

On our second day in Dominican Republic we crammed into tía D’s car to drive from Santo Domingo to Sosúa, the beach town on the North Coast that C had visited many times as a child and teenager. Tía D was nervous about driving over the mountain/hill en route with its perilous bends so we met a friend of hers at Moca, who “escorted” us the rest of the way to Sosúa by driving in front. The plan had been for him to drive her car, but he wanted her to build up courage by driving herself. C travelled over the hill in his car. In ours, tía D drove, tia Y was in the passenger seat, and in the back were me, the boys, and the dog.

The scenery was stunning, rolling green mountains under bright blue sky. I admired the view best as I could with my heart in my throat as we rounded steep hairpin bends while locals on motocicletas or driving small trucks who do that journey all the time veered past us, tía D lighting a cigarette to smoke out the window as she drove, and with the other hand fiddling with the radio button that was tuning in and out. On the downhill side JNH cried a little before falling asleep and CMH puked at some point, and I found myself clutching a plastic bag of sick for the rest of the way. We made it without further incident and spent four days in the village of Charamicos by Sosúa beach. I could now understand completely why C said “but this isn’t a beach” when I first took him to one of my childhood beaches in Devon.

On the return journey, tía D drove all of us with no escort. I felt respect for her: our sporadic visits take her out of her comfort zone, this one being no exception.


Very few of my teachers made an impression. Those that did, had a sparkle in their eyes. One that comes from a profound interest in the world around them.


“Mama, I am allergic to something.


“I am allergic to the light part of fireflies if I touch it at night. Just the light.”

“What does it do to you?”

“It makes me cough”.

Monday, August 29, 2016

NY missive no 141 - Vientos de Cuaresma and Mudanza de los Sentidos

This paragraph made my day, when I read it on the subway on the way to work recently. It’s from Leonardo Padura’s Vientos de Cuaresma:

“De cualquier forma aquel paseo en solitario por el barrio era un placer que cada cierto tiempo el Conde se concedía: en aquella geografía precisa habían nacido sus abuelos, su padre, sus tíos, y el mismo, y deambular por aquella Calzada que vino a tapizar el antiguo sendero por el que viajaban hacia la ciudad las mejores frutas de las arboledas del sur era una peregrinación hacia sí mismo hasta límites que pertenecían ya a las memorias adquiridas de sus mayores.”

In the single-sentence paragraph Padura connects the Havana streets that Conde – the misfit police detective who appears in many of his novels - is walking, to Conde himself, to other parts of the country, and to his ancestors and their memories, blending place and person. I’ve always loved the connection between walking, writing and self. Here’s an amateur translation that gives some sense of the meaning, while not doing nearly enough justice to the original Spanish:

“Anyhow, that solitary stroll through the neighborhood was a joy that el Conde allowed himself every now and then: in that precise place his grandparents, his father, his uncles, and he himself had been born, and to roam along Calzada, the street that now covered the ancient path where once the best fruit from the orchards of the South traveled, was a pilgrimage into his past, reaching the boundaries of memories he had inherited from his forebears.”

I said that Conde is a misfit police detective because at heart he wants to be a writer. Perhaps he recognizes that most mysteries are less “solvable” than detective work would presume. His character provides an effective conduit to explore the Cuban/human experience in all its appreciation and frustration in a particular place and time. In Vientos, Conde is 35, single, jaded. He falls too easily in love, is almost broken by the heady murder case he's assigned to with connections to his old school, the death of a colleague and the relentless dusty Lent winds (the Vientos de Cuaresma) breathing through the city, and is held together, just about, by his group of childhood friends.

I read Vientos having decided to spend most of my (limited) reading time over the next year or so reading in Spanish. Let’s see how it goes. Prior to that book was La Mudanza de los Sentidos by the Dominican writer Angela Nuñez Hernandez. This was an immersion into the world of the just-teenage La Leona as she and her brothers and sisters are brought up by her mother in a rural part of Dominican Republic under Trujillo. I finished reading it while we were in DR – in fact shortly after we drove past the exit to Hernandez' hometown Jarabacoa, on our way from Santo Domingo to Sosúa. I struggled with the Spanish, which is deeply poetic and draws on oral Dominican traditions. That struggle was immensely satisfying though. The displacement, and the concentration needed to glean sense and understanding from disparate signs echoed to an extent the state of mind of the adolescent protagonist.

Friday, June 24, 2016

New York missive no 140 - East River rocks

Zoom in and you'll see the writing on the rocks

There are two rocks on a promontory jutting out into East River at the Northern end of Astoria Park, with writing painted on. One of them says “Open your hearts.” The other says “Open your mind.” I like how hearts are plural and mind, singular.

I come across them when I go on my regular run. By the time I reach the rocks I’m usually panting and it’s a good place for a stretch. I read them, and watch the river churning.

It’s near here that engineers blew up underwater reefs in the 1870s and 1880s to make the passage smoother for ships. They dug tunnels through the reefs and stuffed them full of explosives. Jets of shattered rock and water towered into the sky while onlookers stood on nearby rooftops. Only an occasional boat comes down here now. A scruffy tug or a yacht juddering against the currents.

Once when I was standing near the rocks two women and a man were there too. East River is tidal, and a small area of beach was exposed below us. “Sea glass!” the man called out. “Is it? Yes! I really think it’s sea glass!” He climbed down onto the beach to take a closer took and snapped pictures with his cellphone. “Katlyn would have loved this!” he said.

“Who is Katlyn?” I wondered. Then randomly perhaps, “Is she still alive?” “Why would she love sea glass so much?”

I never knew that sea glass is a thing, but it does make sense that it is. Glass that has been curled and washed so long by salty waves that it’s smooth like faces. When a boat's wake laps over the glass it makes the sound of tinkling coins.

Thoughts ramble just as they do when I run. They tick away and merge with my breath. Running is a good way to sift thoughts. Relevant ones surface, and irrelevant ones get sweated out.

Some days I run at the track in the South of the park for a while. It’s always a kaleidoscopic scene. A small girl, about seven, in fluorescent yellow shorts jogs with her Dad then sprints off so fast for the last stretch it transfixes onlookers. Women in hijabs walk and talk while their sons do laps. In a dusty patch in the middle of the tracks, a circle of capoeira dancers right next to a group of break-dancers keep their music at the right volume to drown out the other. A Latino coach instructs 20 students lined up on their backs along one side of the track, their legs stretched skywards.

Other than midwinter and mornings of course, when it’s much quieter. One time, early morning, the track was deserted. I reached the river while it was still dark and a film crew was starting to set up for the day. The driver of a parked film truck slept at the wheel, maybe after driving several hours to get there, catching some rest before the start of the day.

Saturday, January 16, 2016

New York missive no 139 - adidas eggshells and The End of the Tour

CMH has a pair of black and white Adidas eggshell sneakers, very small of course as he’s only three and half. Utterly impractical also, as they have laces. On the plane to London for Christmas, both boys slept most of the journey and when we began descending I had to gently get CMH’s eggshell sneakers back onto his feet as he slept. He remained oblivious. He didn’t stir as I leant across his seat and gently lifted a floppy foot and squeezed the shoe on and tied it up, and repeated for the second one.

Planes always get me emotional. I think it’s because of the quiet. The enforced stillness gives the mind time to glide uninterrupted for a while, which in turn allows buried emotions to surface and breathe. (Makes you realize how unhealthy the permanent distraction of busy lives is).

Rather than doing the sensible thing and sleeping on the flight while the boys did, I had made the most of the peace and watched “The End of the Tour”. The film is based on a few days that the Rolling Stone reporter David Lipsky spends with David Foster Wallace just after the publication of Wallace’s Infinite Jest to great acclaim. The reporter is also a fiction writer.

Through their conversations – some in a car while driving from one of Wallace’s speaking engagements to the next – the film reveals the tensions between understanding and envy, perceived and lived “genius”, and between the lofty ideals of art and mundaneness of reality, as they order fast food or watch a horror movie or go to an amusement park with two women with whom the conversation never ventures beyond the superficial.

It’s as if Wallace latches onto the mundane. He clings to it either because he believes – has to believe - that that is where beauty lies, or because it provides some level of protection against the abyss of loneliness. The film opens and closes with Lipsky’s reactions to Wallace’s suicide by hanging at the age of 46.

So...the shoes were on, we gathered our piles of scattered stuff - toys, books, magazines, flight freebies - and stuffed it into backbacks and queued behind the other passengers to leave the plane.

Sunday, November 29, 2015

New York missive no 138 - Patient angels on 49th Street

Each Saturday on the way to the boys’ swimming class we pass a couple of bronze angels perched around a bowl, their chins resting in cupped hands. The statue, or bird bath, or whatever it is – is outside Lillie’s “Victorian” restaurant. The bowl contains small stones and cigarette butts. Clearly its current function, even if not its intended one, is as an ashtray. But the boys’ have their own story. They run up to the angels every week: “Look! The poor angels are STILL waiting for the chef to bring them their food!”

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

New York missive no 137 - Bridget Riley's stripes and Miles Davis

Through a random Twitter stream scroll I encountered a London Review of Books article by Bridget Riley on the process by which she developed her colored stripes paintings. I was in bed and sleepy, and it was only towards the end I realized it was written by her. Instead I read it somehow as an unknown artist’s reflections on their journey with lines and color relationships. Eliminating the fame made a difference.

I had been one of those people who responded to Bridget Riley’s paintings with “but it’s just stripes.” Now I get them.

She says:

My studies of the greys paved the way for the colour movement in Late Morning (1967-68). In that painting, I began in a very simple way to draw with colour. The blue to bright green movement is the form. At the core of colour lies a paradox. It is simultaneously one thing and several things – you can never see colour by itself, it is always affected by other colours.


You cannot deal with thought directly outside practice as a painter: ‘doing’ is essential in order to find out what form your thought takes.

This discovery-through-doing reminds me of the kids’ book “Andrew Drew and Drew” that follows a little boy as he populates blank pages with creatures that emerge from his imagination.

"he drew...

"and drew...

"and drew...

"Andrew never knew...

"What would happen...

"When he began."

It also reminds me of JNH and CMH's prolific drawing and doodling. “This is heart rain.” “We’re playing ice hockey…”

The day after reading the article I happened to be wearing a new stripy dress. It’s a cotton Summer dress, in bold thin stripes of bright green, red, yellow and black. I was working near home that day, in the air-conditioned predictability of a Starbucks.

A disheveled man in his sixties who’s sometimes there working his way through piles and piles of documents with furled corners said as he walked past, “that’s a wonderful combination of colors." Or something along those lines.

With the sudden switch from work-mode to talking-with-stranger-mode, I came out with a rather odd response, “Thank you. Though it wasn’t me who designed it!” As if I wanted to correct him on misplaced praise.

That didn’t throw him off though, and he embarked on a story about Miles Davis. The man said he was once with a friend of a friend who had to pick up the jazz musician, and Miles was taking a long time coming down to the street so they went to see what was going on, and there he was, captivated by a small TV set. There was no show on though, just the bands of colors that used to appear when programming ended.


“Mummy, why do you like rivers so much?"

“Because they are always changing and always the same.”

Sunday, March 29, 2015

New York missive no 136 - A rock monster, and Mack the Knife

Last weekend Dad was visiting on his way back from one of his three-week work trips: this time Colombia and Orlando, Florida. On each day of the weekend we went to a patch of the city packed in a different way with dense layers of memory.

I’ll start with Sunday. We took the M5 bus all the way up Riverside Drive to Washington Heights where C grew up. The trees were still leafless so the Hudson was clearly visible through a lattice of gray branches, unlike Summer when thick foliage obscures it. We got out at Fort Washington and 172nd, and walked to the apartment building at the Western edge of 171st where C lived for the first four years of his life, while his parents were still together. Just down the street was “El Peligro.” It’s a ramp on the side of the New York Presbyterian hospital (where C was born), that he and Z would run up and down. E would warn them they’d get in trouble with security guards, telling them it was “peligro”, which of course just heightened the appeal.

Manhattan is narrow at the top, a tough rock promontory squeezed between New Jersey on the West and the bottom of the Bronx on the East, separated by river and joined by bridges. We walked up Haven Ave, past a half-built Columbia University medical school building. The rendering on the hoarding showed that it will be a transparent glass and steel tower with jagged angles, utterly different from the stoney-faced apartment buildings nearby. We reached the park. The map says it’s called J Hood Wright park though for C it’s “the park”.

Some features were new, like a dog run. Others were not, like the exposed schist rock where the land shows what it’s made of. Those rocks were formed 450 million years ago. They are perfect for clambering on. C and Z climbed on them as toddlers, and now CMH and JNH did, and we followed. It was bitterly cold (still, at the end of March!). The boys’ brightly colored winter hats stood out against the rock. The rock, too, had its own brightness: the gray glistened with flecks of mica. CMH determined that a small hump of the rock that stood somewhat separate from the rest was a “monster”. Not a bad monster – he kept running back to it, calling “Monster! Monster!” and giving it a hug.


On Saturday we took the 7 train to the Louis Armstrong House museum in Corona. In 1943 Armstrong's wife Lucille (his fourth, and last wife – he said she gave him more than the three others combined) bought the house without Louis knowing. He was always on the road on tour. When she gave him the address and a taxi brought him to the front door, the story goes that he told the taxi driver he must have got the wrong address. Such a big house couldn’t be his own. He had been brought up in a poor district of New Orleans known as “The Battlefield”, and now, despite earning half a million dollars a year and being able to afford a huge mansion if he’d wanted, he couldn’t conceive that this was his home.

He and Lucille lived there for the next thirty years, until Louis’ death in 1971. It has been kept as they lived in it, and guides show people around accompanied by recordings of Louis speaking and playing. In a rare interview in 1983, Lucille Armstrong said something along the lines of “Louis is still everywhere here”, and it certainly feels that way. They didn’t have children of their own, but when he was home from touring Louis spent hours with the children who lived nearby, playing his trumpet with them on the stoops. Photos of them are in his den on the second floor, along with recording equipment, and paper where he wrote down what was on the cassettes he recorded. Each would end with the words "s'all".

Soon before Louis died, they bought two adjacent lots and turned them into a stunning square garden wrapped in brick walls, shaded over by trees. CMH – who conveniently slept while we toured the house – grabbed the trunk of a conifer and shook it gently so that the previous day’s snow splashed down.


Dad had introduced JNH to the song “Mack the Knife” the previous evening. We were listening to the song and reading the lyrics, which piqued JNH’s interest, which somehow then led to us watching a video of Rubén Blades’s salsa homage to the song, "Pedro Navaja". JNH was startled when Mack knifed a man in a dark alley (we stopped the video at that point) so I had to explain that he was only acting. Mack keeps popping up in conversation now. So-and-so is a bad guy, he'll say, but "not as bad as Mack the Knife."