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.


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.


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.


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.