Saturday, March 18, 2017

NY missive no 147 - A Master of the Universe on the 5 train

Since last November our office has been based down on Wall Street. When Dad was visiting recently he asked if there are many “masters of the universe” hanging around down there (he had just read Bonfire of the Vanities). As it happens the area’s more diverse than you would expect – it’s not just bankers. But I did encounter one up front recently.

I’d stayed later in the office than usual to interview people in SE Asia, and got the 5 train from Wall Street station around 9 or 10 pm. Unlike the rush hours when the trains are packed, my carriage was relatively empty. There were about eight people in total, spread out sparsely on the seats.

Two Wall Street types in suits came in, sat opposite each other, and one proceeded to regale the other at top volume about his latest business developments. It struck me that that man had absolutely no consciousness whatsoever of any other person in the carriage than himself and his colleague, who was far too eager an audience. On and on he went, his voice filling the carriage. He spoke lingo much of the time, about dynamics between departments and challenges in his new role that he clearly wanted to portray he was taking completely in his stride. He talked as if he knew the answers to everything, and as if what he was talking about, was everything.

This went on for two stops. When they got out, I heard him continuing at exactly the same speed and tone as they ascended an escalator, until finally they were out of earshot.

Sunday, February 26, 2017

NY missive no 146 - Change, venomous soup, windowsill and Lemony Snicket

Change as opening up new doors

After 13 wonderful years I'm moving to work at a new organization in mid-April, shifting from international human rights to community organizing in New York City. Of course there are mixed emotions but I'm excited about the opportunity to help build alliances between labor, social justice and environmental groups in this city that I've loved since it became home in 2007 - all the more so in the current political climate.

Through the process of letting people know about my move and reading their responses, I've been reminded of Jhumpa Lahiri's beautiful New Yorker essay on shifting from writing in English, to writing in Italian. It's not about a change of career per se, but a change in context, and the way in which this has implications beyond the change itself:

"One could say that the mechanism of metamorphosis is the only element of life that never changes. The journey of every individual, every country, every historical epoch - of the entire universe and all it contains - is nothing but a series of changes, at times subtle, at times deep, without which we would stand still. The moments of transition, in which something changes, constitute the backbone of all of us. Whether they are a salvation or a loss, they are moments that we tend to remember. They give a structure to our existence. Almost all the rest is oblivion."

I like the emphasis on change, rather than progress. As Trump's administration is reminding us pretty much every day, social "progress" is ephemeral, and in response the fight for justice has to be continuous.

CMH's soups

While I cook in the kitchen, CMH likes to make "soups" in a saucepan on the floor. The base is water, then he adds all kinds of things. Last weekend, he was making a soup for Barack Obama who was apparently coming to visit at 6am the next morning. Today, JNH got involved too and they got creative with a "venomous soup". The ingredients included lumps of green watercolor paint that quickly dyed the whole thing, salt, peppercorns, butter, flour, turmeric (the yellow wasn't strong enough to influence the bright green), blades of grass, peanuts, pieces of a blue sponge, and a floating cork.

We thought it could inspire a story called the "Venomous Sea".

The carefully-planned windowsill

Only important things get placed on JNH's windowsill.

At the moment, there's his cup of water (a permanent fixture), along with a Chinese china tiger (he was born in the year of the tiger), a wooden cat, a spider robot that M and D bought him at the London Science Museum last year and that he re-discovered today, and a couple of superhero masks. The items on the windowsill apparently help to protect him while he sleeps.

Only so dark for children

JNH loved the first book in Lemony Snicket's "Series of Unfortunate Events." It tells the story of three children who are orphaned when their parents supposedly die in a fire, and their lives proceed from bad to worse as they move from one crazy guardian to another. In the same way as with the Roald Dahl books, the fact the story was interspersed with humour, vivid characters and imaginative adventures kept him engrossed and unfazed by its underlying darkness and devastating happenings.

Then he spotted commercials for the series on Netflix. But after three episodes it was clear the bleakness was too much and poor kid said he didn't want to see any more because it was giving him nightmares. C and I went from loving his engagement with the story to feeling like bad parents for freaking him out. It reminded me of when I saw Nightmare at Nine Elm Street when I was 10 at a friend's house. I spent the rest of the Summer thinking that Freddie Kruger with his long metal fingers was coming up behind me to grab me. Minor trauma in the bigger scheme of things.

Friday, February 10, 2017

NY missive no 145 - Myth-releasing ice blocks

JNH likes to make up stories on our 15-minute walks to school. This morning the sidewalks were lined with snow following a heavy snow-storm yesterday. JNH broke "ice rocks" (aka lumps of frozen snow) along the way, by dropping them on the ground. He decided that on the day that all the ice rocks in the world are broken, all the world's myths would come true. The Loch Ness monster the yeti and so on, would be real.

Sunday, February 5, 2017

NY missive no 144 - He Will Not Divide Us, Astoria

Recently an elderly white man was pushing his shopping cart long 30th Ave. As I walked past he greeted a neighbor with a wave. We were right next to Trade Fair, the supermarket where back in 2011 I interviewed the two managers Mustafa and Sabah. Mustafa had said “You cross borders when you cross our aisles,” referring to the fact that they stock products from all parts of the world so that “no matter where you’re from you can always find what you want.”

This scene would have just been a very typical Astoria sidewalk snapshot reflecting the “old” and “new” of the neighborhood, other than the fact that pinned to the front of the man’s shopping cart was a large “Trump” sign.

The sign bounced another narrative to the foreground, in which the elderly man was publicly supporting a Presidential candidate – by then President elect – with a divisive anti-immigrant, anti-minority agenda. Whatever the man’s personal motivations for voting for Trump, the sign on his shopping cart conveyed a message to the Latin American, Middle Eastern and Asian neighbors walking along the street next to him that “I support a ‘great’ America that you are not a part of.”

As Trump’s numbers rose during the primaries I remember feeling that Astoria’s diverse sidewalks, which I’d come to take for granted, were a fragile, increasingly threatened fabric. Now that sense is intensified of course, two weeks into his Presidency.

During a Muslim solidarity gathering on Steinway Street and 25th Avenue this Friday, local politicians celebrated the diversity of the crowd while a small group of three or four riled-up white men and women stood on the stoop of an apartment building behind the rally chanting “Go home, Go home!” and “Don-ald Trump, Don-ald Trump!”.

During the installation of the “He Shall Not Divide Us” livestreamed installation at Museum of the Moving Image, artist Shia LaBeouf was arrested when he retaliated against a man who had interrupted with racist language – and since then the livestream has been used other times by neo-nazis.

Yet immediately after the inauguration there was an accelerated strengthening of ties in response to Trump's divisive and dangerous agenda. There's a recognition of the urgency and power of collective action and organization.

Challenging Trump’s policies will be a question of numbers, i.e. physically demonstrating that, just as Trump lost the popular vote, the policies he is now implementing are in the interests of a slim, powerful majority of Americans. And a question of strategy, i.e. from protest, to fearless legal efforts, to strategies to bring key Republicans around against his agenda. And in response to Trump's supporters, it will involve clear communication policy-by-policy to make it clear that in many cases his approach is not in their interest, as well as outright rejection of racism in all its forms.

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In the midst of the turmoil of big picture politics, small, local interactions keep me grounded.

One Saturday afternoon we took our two "dining" chairs ("dining" sounds much too posh for what they are) that have very dirty beige seat covers to be re-covered. We went to a little place called "LIS Upholstery" along the quiet end of 28th Ave in Astoria, beyond Steinway. CMH said "boring place" when he walked in and saw the curtains and cushions on display. But then...the kids saw the big room at the back of the store where two guys were busy using old-school sewing machines fixing curtains and clothes, with spools of cotton on the wall and big rolls of fabric and suddenly it didn't seem boring at all! They watched one of the men use a sewing machine with much interest, trying to figure out how it works.

Another day I went with JNH to a quirky jewelry store - Shienny & Co Jewelers - just round the corner from us on 30th Ave. The skinny, bearded man who runs it is often standing outside having a cigarette. I wanted to see if they could clean the silver-and-stones necklace that my parents gave me for my 30th (aka a decade ago!). He said that, well if he cleaned it I'd have to give him $20, and that instead I should use a liquid they sold for $8.50, and a silver-cleaning cloth for $5.50. Then he realized that the liquid might not be good for the stones and that it would make the silver "too" shiny for that style of jewelry, so just the cloth would do. "What it needs is some TLC" he said, and told me to use the cloth to "work at it" for a while and I'd see the difference. I think he could tell I don't usually create the time to sit down and patiently fix things, and was enjoying telling me to do just that. So off I went with my cloth and spent a while polishing it that evening, and it looks wonderful of course.

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Melania Trump: A broken soul in an artificial body.

Monday, January 9, 2017

NY missive no 143 - Mis Documentos and El Cuerpo En Que Nací

On a work trip to Delhi at the beginning of December I snuck a couple of hours in Lodhi Gardens, which I remembered so well from my first visit. That time we walked in the early morning when the birdsong was deafening and Delhi-ites were doing their powerwalks or, slower, yoga, to get into the day.

This time I was on my own and it was right in the middle of the day, though not too hot because it was Winter. Most of the time I walked, despite (in spite!) of an infuriatingly painful right knee that I hope miraculously cures itself soon. I’m getting OLD it seems – the looming 40th birthday this January doesn’t help psychologically (nor the fact it comes the day before Donald Trump's inauguration; more on that in another post). I swing between being daunted by the birthday and a bring-it-on, “embrace the new decade” mode.

Soon before I had to meet H for lunch I sat down and wrote a few notes about the latest couple of Spanish books I’ve read. As mentioned, my aim is to read just in Spanish for the rest of this year or so.

One was “Mis Documentos” / “My Documents” by the Chilean writer Alejandro Zambra. It’s a collection of brilliant stories, even though the male (usually) protagonists are not so brilliant. Most are young or middle-aged men trying to find their way without success, or at best with ambiguity.

There is plenty of meta-fiction but so cleverly done it is not intrusive. The stories play with the idea that language constructs identify and relationships, but as the protagonists try to define themselves both they and the language they use are revealed to be inadequate.

In one story, “Recuerdos de una computadora personal”, the story of a couple’s relationship is intertwined with that of a personal computer that the man installs in his apartment. They have separate logins, one for him (Max), one for her (Claudia). Max uses it to write long email missives to old friends – friends that he could see in person, but chooses not to. Claudia decides to scan all her old photo albums, and in doing so, has fun with photo-shop, removing a face here, squeezing in a celebrity there. (The stories are mostly set in the 90s and early 2000s, pre-smart-phones and ipads, post-Pinochet).

One day when Claudia has reason to be suspicious, she stays up all night drinking wine and cracks Max's login code. In one of those emails to his friends, she reads that he was considering, in a matter-of-fact way, whether or not to leave her, and storms out.

A scene later we see Max travelling the long bus journey from Santiago to Temuco to see his son from a previous relationship, Sebastián, carrying the heavy computer on his lap the whole journey because he didn’t have time to wrap it up. He hopes that his son will like to have it. But we learn that Sebastián just switches it on once, quickly figures the computer he already has is superior, and packs it away in the basement.

Back when Max first got the computer, the narrator wrote:

“Gracias al computadora, o por su culpa, sobrevino una soledad nueva.”

“Thanks to the computer, or perhaps through fault of the computer, a new loneliness came over him.”

I then read “El cuerpo en que nací” by the Mexican writer Guadalupe Nettel. It’s a first-person closely autobiographical novel about a girl’s childhood split between Mexico City and Aix in France. In Mexico City she lives first with her parents and brother, until her father suddenly becomes absent from their lives – we/she later discover why – and her mother decides to move alone to France. The children are brought up by their over-protective grandmother in an apartment in the Olympic City, built for the 1968 Summer Olympics. She spends a few teenage years in Aix with her mother, living in a predominately immigrant neighborhood while attending a lycée with children from all over the city, then moves back to Mexico.

Guadalupe was born with a lazy eye and her parents were rigorous in trying to “correct” it. They kept it behind a patch most of the time and enforced a regime of eye exercises. The novel is the vehicle for Guadalupe’s effort (and it is a perennial effort) to make sense from sudden and partially-understood changes in her environment - her effort to squeeze out an identity between the damaging mix of abandonment and constraint that she’s subjected to. Her approach is one of quiet resistance and subtle acts of rebellion. She develops a passion for football despite her grandmother’s objections, for example, and selects friends who like her are on the fringes.

With time and language as her toolkit Nettel crafts a childhood and a period - the 1970s - that were riven with doubt and experimentation. She surrounds us with the chaotic construction of identities, never neat, always surprising.

Watch - Nettel talks about El cuerpo en que nací:

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.

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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.

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“Mama, I am allergic to something.

“Really?”

“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.