Saturday, January 25, 2020

NY missive no 166 - Deep and up

In so many contexts I've been in, there's a tension between those who want to go up and big, and those who want to go deep. Both are important. Creating strong connections between the two is a real art form, and so often a missed opportunity.

Windows and doors

On Tuesdays last year I had a routine during JNH's guitar class, of drinking a glass of wine in Omonia cafe on Broadway. It became a habit to the extent that the waitress would say "your usual?", and "it's been so long!" when I missed a few weeks. A precious window of time during which I'd sit by the window, with a book to read or a notepad to write in, and look up out of that window to the street from time to time.

On one of those occasions, I realized that windows and doors could illustrate my philosophy of life and work, if I ever got around to having one.

Windows for the way that they put a frame around a part of the world and prompt you to reflect on what that frame contains. Looking through a different window provides a different perspective, a different take, and your life takes it in and becomes richer.

There's a wonderful New Yorker profile of Jorn Utzon who designed the Sidney Opera House. At one of the homes he designed in Majorca, Can Lis, he included slit-like niches alongside each other overlooking the ocean, instead of a single window, so that a ship sailing by would appear, disappear, reappear, disappear, reappear. How simple and beautiful.

And doors for the way that we don't know what to expect before we open them. Doing so reveals the unexpected. The more new windows and doors we find to look and walk through, the better.

Friday, November 8, 2019

NY missive no 165 - Watchmen, New Kid, and the promise of a blank comic strip

It was only on reading Watchmen (after C’s patient encouragement over the years) that I realized something fundamentally wonderful about graphic novels. They are a profound example of constraints breeding creativity. Within each of the boxes, what do you choose to show, what do you not show? When do you zoom in, when do you zoom out? That's similar to a novelists’ choices between revelation and omission but more visceral given it’s visual as well as verbal. Controlling the reader/watcher’s experience, but then only so much of course, because the reader/watcher might capture what you intended, only some of it, or something altogether different. Close and distant, like any relationship.

I was reminded of this again yesterday when I drew out the square and rectangle shapes for a comic strip that JNH had to complete as a homework assignment. I thought about whether to use three, two or one boxes in each of the four rows on the yellow page, and wasn’t sure how exactly I arrived at those decisions, drawing them first in pencil, and then going over the lines with a thick black sharpie. A page of potential. Even more intriguing than a blank page. I’m looking forward to seeing what JNH comes up with, but this being an assignment no doubt it will be less spontaneous than what he sketches in his big red notebook. Recently, that has involved annotated diagrams of the risks associated with the various parts of a school bus - including the puking potential of sitting at the front, in the middle or at the back - and mascots for invented American Football teams, like the Miami Sunburns, Tennessee Towers, and Buffalo Spears.

Another recent graphic novel encounter was New Kid, by Jerry Craft (here's a video of Craft talking about it; what a great surname for a graphic novelist by the way).

JNH plucked it off a shelf in a bookstore. He read it twice, then C read it, then I read it aloud to CMH with JNH listening too. It tells/shows the story of Jordan Banks as he straddles two worlds, between his home in Washington Heights (where C grew up), and a private middle school in Riverdale in the Bronx, where he’s one of the few kids of color, and one of the few on financial aid. He navigates these tensions with curiosity, humor, and by capturing them within the squares and rectangles of his own comic strips.

Sunday, October 6, 2019

NY missive no 164 - Tennis, soccer, Queens

The last Saturday before the kids went back to school, JNH and I were on the Sean’s Place basketball courts on 38th Street, playing tennis.

I say playing tennis, but it was more like trying to hit the ball to each other and get a rally of more than three. I was wearing a sleeveless Japanese-style print shirt in turquoise, pink and white, and sneakers with pink laces, which made me feel a bit clown-like. We’d been to the US Open at Flushing Meadows the week before, which inspired the kids to get rackets. JMH was particularly impressed by Kyrgios. Tennis on a basketball court, I thought...talk about gentrification.

CMH kicked a soccer ball nearby. And while there was this touch of tennis towards the end, it had really been a Summer of soccer. Of riding the 7 train each Saturday to the pitches in Flushing Meadows Corona Park, where kids from all over Queens played against each other, with team names like Real Astoria, Manchester NYC, Las Malvinas, and ours, 5 Star Soccer Academy.

Ice-cream, empanada and mango sellers moved among the throngs of parents on the sidelines. Always a creature of habit, each Saturday I’d look forward to my zip-lock bag of mango slices shaken with lime and salt, sucking on them under a hot Sun with bits of AstroTurf in my sandals and rooting for 5 Star with their bright blue and white shirts, as airplanes headed down into La Guardia rumbled overhead. The U7s rocked the season, the U10s less so, which made the high moments all the better.

**************************************

At JFK waiting for a flight for a quick work trip to the UK. Scandinavian couple to my right at the bar, sipping very slowly on their Cosmopolitans, and looking somewhat relieved that they are headed back to the peace and quiet of their hometown.

I still love this City like I did when I arrived 12 years ago, actually more so.

Now the Scandinavians next to me have drunk about half their Cosmopolitans, and their conversation is flowing.

Wednesday, May 8, 2019

NY missive no 163 - A Homemade Coming Into Your Own

A couple of girlfriends have done, over the years, a “Coming Into Your Own” course, focused on women finding a way to land on what’s right for them while navigating work, kids, and all else that life brings. I haven’t done the course – partly out of wanting to use money and time for other things (those contested commodities, speaking of the juggling act!). But I did read the book, on a train ride to Philadelphia and back again. And I do feel like I’ve been through a kind of homemade Coming Into Your Own process over the past couple of years. It's been influenced, I’m sure, by turning 40, Mum dying, and a career transition all in a small window of time.

Life and career-wise, here are some of the guideposts I’ve come to recognize as meaningful for me.

Imagination

We’re not here for long. We can see things as they are, and propose solutions on the basis of what’s been done before. Or we can imagine transformation, stretch things in big or small ways. Have visions, however wild, and celebrate any step towards them.

The moments in-between

It’s on walks to the stores, in fragments of time like now when I’m sitting on a sunny step with a notebook, or on a crowded subway, that ideas fall into place. Not sitting in front of a computer.

It’s all about the people, stupid

First, there's the magic and creation of memories during time with friends and family: after all, that makes up so much of what we remember, and how we remember each other. This year, a stand-out one has been C, JNH, CMH and I playing "Golpe", a present from tía D that's a bit like Uno but better.

In the context of work, I’ve realized that one of the things I value the most is finding ways to help colleagues and those I manage feel motivated, challenged, and able to be their best selves. That’s important for individuals, and it’s important for the collective, and so often it’s neglected.

Change the World, or just a tiny corner of it

I have a tendency to connect the small picture to the big picture. That can be a good thing but can also escalate into a desire to try to fix all that’s broken at once, or to at least be in a place where there’s an opportunity to do that. Which is impossible. So I’ve finally come to accept that in any context there are opportunities to help change things for the better.

And to value where I am now rather than spending lots of energy thinking about what's next.

Thursday, May 2, 2019

NY missive no 162 - Year of the pig

Recently I caught up with JQ, who said how coming back to New York after a year in Berlin and Budapest reminded her how deeply she loves this city. It struck her particularly on a visit to Chinatown. I too had had a similar reminder in Chinatown, when I took the boys there for the Luna new year celebrations. As my schedule’s more flexible for now (oh yeah!) I can make the most of days like that, when they are off school. We got the train down to Sara D Roosevelt Park where the firecracker ceremony was happening.

The park was packed, but we found a slightly less crowded area on the South Side by a playground and some grass. A nearby store brimmed and spilled out on to the street with lanterns, small boxes of firecrackers, and foam string spray cans for a dollar. The boys loved squirting the foam all over the park where it hung in fluorescent threads from the trees and climbing frames. The air popped with the sound of the fire crackers as little feet leaped on them.

Then we found a little girl who had lost her mother. Tears ran down her face. Everyone was just continuing on their way around her, oblivious to the fact she was on her own. We tried talking with her, but she only understood Chinese. I lifted her up high to see if she could see her mother in the crowd, but no sign. A woman who did speak Chinese came and helped us. We began to head towards the stage to ask for an announcement to be made, when the mother came running up to us, hugged the girl with tears and relief, and all was well.

It’s the year of the pig. The boys talked me in to buying a pig each: bright red, round, squishy ones decorated with Chinese flowers. In that unpredictable way that toys do, they have turned out to be hits. Both sleep with them each night (with a group of other carefully selected animals), and JNH’s joins us when we’re watching TV.

Homewards through Little Italy. Though I’d given up hope of seeing dragons in action, suddenly there they were on a side-street, leaping and glaring to the accompaniment of cymbals and falling streamers in the evening sun: I was taken right back to my 10th birthday party in London’s chinatown, where the dragons frightened little sister P.

Monday, March 18, 2019

NY missive no 161 - Hudson Yards, West 30th Street and the fabric of places

We have become so used to talking about the fabric of a place or a neighborhood that rarely do we pause to think about fabric, real fabric - to draw out the texture of the word's original meaning. I mean, what does the place feel like to touch? What's holding it together? How is it held together? What colors does it have, what shades? Is it stretchy, heavy, light, hand-made or factory-made?

I was struck recently on moving from the glassy monochrome fabric of Hudson Yards (freshly opened this weekend) to the deep, rich fabric of a short stretch of 30th Street between Eighth and Ninth Avenues.

Hudson Yards has a disturbing flatness (beyond all else that's disturbing about it, which I wrote about here). The "Vessel" is an empty vessel, a selfie vortex, a mise-en-abyme of unseeing self absorption, by which I mean in these selfies and reflections we don't even see ourselves. Or a giant shawarma as some have observed.

The rectangular mall could be a rectangular wall anywhere. This fabric feels cold to the touch. It does not give. The eyes grow tired quickly.

The 30th Street block is deep and immersive. It is soft to the touch. You can get lost, your eyes and mind alerted to multiple mysteries and possibilities. Walk just 50 paces or so and you've passed old furriers, a drum store, a recording store, a martial arts center, a church, and that's just for starters. You can feel the multiple hands that have worked this fabric and wrapped themselves in it over time, and you know that time will continue to thread new patterns in it, make its mark, build on what came before and extend its history.

Wednesday, January 30, 2019

NY missive no 160 - Reading as navigation

The layout of the gardens in "Umami"

Last Wednesday evening as our kids ran around enjoying the crazy games for a birthday party at Chucky Cheese on Northern Boulevard, one of my fellow moms asked me what I’ve been reading recently.

What I’m reading right now came quickly to mind: Carlos’ Fuentes short story collection “La Frontera de Cristal”, set along the Mexico-US border. I chose it as I was hungry for some nuance and lived-humanity narrative about the border territory, while the mediasphere was so saturated with Trump’s wall obsession and the resulting government shutdown.

But before that? Agghhh! My mind went blank, other than realizing that a lot of what I’ve been reading has been work-related: PDF reports sent to my i-pad for rapid digestion. The combination of the partying kids and the fact I’ve been juggling reading various things at once meant I was at a loss on how to elaborate.

Here, therefore, I'm pausing to capture some details of recent books before they get further buried in my mind-compost.

One of the work-related ones was Tom Angotti’s New York For Sale. It describes the way that the international and local real estate dominance in New York actually creates momentum – or more like forces a space - for a juxtaposing creative response in the form of community-led urban planning. I’m now onto his latest book, edited with Sylvia Morse, Zoned Out, which underscores the racist structures behind top-down land re-zonings and has provided inspiration and insights at community meetings throughout the city.

Novel-wise, I recently read Sergio de la Pava’s “Lost Empress”. With similar mastery to his first book Naked Singularity it combines humor and violence and weaves multiple narratives and voices. This time the narratives are linked by two threads that draw on the core of American experience: football, and the criminal justice system.

At Astoria Bookshop I picked up the short stories selected by Roxane Gay for the 2018 Best American Short Stories collection. They include Danielle Evans’ Boys Go To Jupiter, in which a white college student's boyfriend gives her a confederate flag bikini, snaps a picture of her in it and posts it to Facebook. She rides the resulting campus outrage with a disturbing level of insouciance and detachment. Like the best short stories it delivers complexity despite its compactness. And part-way through there's an unforgettable gut-punch of a moment.

A highlight last year was Laia Jufresa’s Umami. It connects the interior and exterior lives of people living in a small group of houses in Mexico City, set around their gardens which are laid out like the flavors on the tongue: i.e. bitter, salty, sweet, sour and the fifth taste, “Umami”. The novel hinges on two deaths, the tragic drowning of one of the family’s daughters, Luz, when she was “almost six”, and the death of the elderly academic Alfonso’s wife Noelia from pancreatic cancer. The characters' multi-layered processes of mourning and moving on create the ebb and flow of the book, which is written in five sections that move backwards in time. The novel resonated as I still, a year-and-a-half later, am journeying through the process of mourning for Mum. (Process is much too ordered a word).

At the end of a video interview with Sophie Hugues who translated the novel into English, Jufresa says:

“It was very important for me to write a book about grief… I was living in Mexico where grief was very present because a lot of people are being killed and we have 25,000 who have disappeared. A lot has been written about the violence of it, and when you have so many people dying, you basically have no time for grief. Then people become numbers, and disappeared people become this long list of names, and a lot of writers are stopping with the violence. But I felt like no-one…well not no-one…but I really felt the need to say, stop. Grief needs space.

And I wanted to write a book that had nothing to do with the violence but that allowed the time and space just to remember that every time one person dies, a lot of lives are affected. So that’s why I wanted to make this reflection game [in the style of the novel]…Even if it's not your sister, but someone who you used to see every day, you are affected by it.”

In a World where so much is in flux, and where the center, whatever that was, really does not hold, books and stories center us.

They hold our attention, even if only for a short time. And, over time, our reading patterns create stepping stones, guiding us through this mysterious life and creating a story of their own.