Saturday, May 25, 2024

NY missive 190 - Cherry


One Spring break I was with the kids in London when C messaged with pictures showing that all of the trees next door had come down. These were the trees that had “waved their branches” to JNH during the pandemic, and cast dancing shadows on the back wall of our house in the mornings as the sun came up. They were the trees in G’s back yard, that were older than any others along the block - thick trunked and sprawling branched - a heaven for birds and brave cats, a compact 15-10 meter forest in the city. G’s wife had died, and not very long after, G moved to an apartment by the sea in Brooklyn with his daughter. New G (no relation, same first name) moved in with his wife and soon-to-be-born daughter, with big plans for transforming the place.

The house went through an epic and stressful renovation, and down came the trees - every branch, twig, leaf removed - to be replaced by a…swimming pool! There were scenes that August of workers digging its pit by hand and carrying buckets of earth through the house to a dumpster outside. There were quite a few pauses as the city shut down the project - and the pit would be covered up - before somehow it would get going again.

Then there was the trench for a new wall between our yard and theirs. I’d said please take care of the roots of the cherry tree on our side, which stretched across that divide. The tree was planted by H who lived here before, and was now the tallest around. Assurances notwithstanding, one day I heard its roots being hacked through with a saw - no fault of the guy doing it, who just had his job to do - and I flew outside like a crazy person, yelling please, don’t cut those roots. But of course you can’t have roots running right through a wall foundation.

The tree is still standing. The remaining arc of two thirds of its roots must be tough enough to support it. And it’s not only standing, but thriving, probably because of all the extra light that it has. Now there is a yard with a pool - and the daughter, who arrived mid-construction, splashing around in it - a wall, and then a cherry tree. The tree is sprouting more cherries than it ever has, and its reaching its branches high, as if growing into the spaces left behind by the trees that were removed.

Saturday, January 20, 2024

NY missive no 189: Whale rocks


Yesterday I went on a birthday walk in Central Park, in the Northern part where there are fewer people. It was snowing too, which made it even quieter. As so often on entering the quiet parts of the park, my mind immediately began to breathe and react differently to when I’m out on the streets. The feeling wasn’t quite as overwhelming as when, a couple of Summers ago on a visit to tia D, we went up to the hills in Jarabacoa, where the greenness of the green and the size of the trees seemed to expand my synapses in ways I hadn’t experienced before But in Central Park, in the snow, there was still a perceptible shift. 

The fact that the Conservatory Garden is closed for renovation re-directed my walk in a different direction to how I had imagined it, in a good way. Close by the entrance I came across one of the millions-of-years-old Manhattan schist rocks. There was the permanence of the rock, and the temporariness of the snow.  

While a striking example, it prompted me to think that in any place and supposed moment in time, we experience a layering of temporality, some combination of the fleeting and the, if not permanent because nothing is, the much more permanent. A mix of things operating on narrow and wider timescales, which in turn makes time itself seem blurry, like the snow.

I walked on, making a loop through the North Woods and back to where I started, passing other rocks along the way. Some of them have the appearance of surfacing whales.


Saturday, November 25, 2023

NY missive no 188 - Thankful

What I’m most thankful for this thanksgiving is the Hiraldos in my life. First and foremost for being my World, of course, but also in some very specific ways that reflect each of their timeless uniqueness, as well as ingredients of our recent days. 

JNH, for the way that he has rolled with the epically involved high school application process here in NYC. A process that parents fret over, but then we really do need to check ourselves, as where else would you have options from 700 programs in several hundred schools across five boroughs, from focuses that range from STEM, to film-making, to marine conservation, together from the opportunity to learn from being in a city like this. 

The various essays and audition materials that JNH submitted have brought out marvelous nuggets of his creative, thoughtful self (proud mama-bragging alert here, but hey, it’s been a while). Like an essay on a moment that’s challenged him intellectually, for which he wrote about how he felt on finishing the last page of War and Peace. He said that while the story absorbed him entirely, he found Tolstoy’s inter-woven philosophical holding forth tedious. Or as he put it – and as I doubt anyone else would - the “brilliance of the story made reading the chapters in-between even more painful. Every word regarding the definition of ‘power’ and whatnot filled me with a longing to return to the story.” He described how, despite the challenge of reading the book, Tolstoy’s view has shaped his way of seeing the World, particularly Tolstoy's belief that we shouldn’t focus on individual leader-figures but on the masses, the “force that really moves history”. 

And CMH, for his perennial hutzpah and un-bragging leadership. How he’s already assembled a new crew at middle school, and is hustling on the basketball court alongside eighth graders two times his height. And how at a soccer club talent center he’s been attending on Fridays, his response to a coach testing him by saying he wasn’t taking the practice seriously enough was to quietly get back to playing, and to score three goals, to show that yes, I’m taking this seriously. 

Tia Z, who comes on most thanksgivings including this one. (She didn’t make it last year as I came down with Covid, and the previous one was when we visited her in Vegas). With sporadic visits you can’t predict when there will be moments of reconnection but there always are. For me and her this time it was when we were both up earlier than the others on the Friday after thanksgiving. As I had my morning coffee in pajamas she mentioned the sustenance she’s been getting from the stoics – prompted, perhaps, by the fact that the day before, after hitting up Central Park, we’d hunkered down on the sofa to watch Gladiator, which opens with scenes featuring Marcus Aurelius, who’s one of them. 

I remembered how much stoicism had resonated with me when I discovered it – through Seneca I think? – in the car park-style sprawling library at Edinburgh University. The conversation provided a much needed re-grounding reminder of the tenets of courage, temperance, justice and wisdom (and whatnot, JNH might add). 

And C, for believing in us, and in me. When I take leaps I have tendency to assemble doubts around them (hence the need for stoic courage!), and without a flicker of doubt from his side he will just say “I know you are going to do this.” And well beyond that belief, is a knowing of me. He included in our wedding vows ‘let me be patient in learning your ways’, which has that nailing-it dimension that C has when it comes to the things that are really important in life – accompanied, I hope, by my knowing of him, and accompanied by our openness to continuing to learn together.

Monday, February 6, 2023

NY missive no 187 - Oysters on Sosua Beach, and Anuk Arudpragasam's Passage North


At the end of our Summer visit to see tía D in Dominican Republic – our first time there since the pandemic began – we spent a Monday at Sosúa Beach.

It’s a stunning beach, but also a party beach, so being with the kids, early on a Monday morning was a good time to be there. It was one of those moments when the present and past are meshed together thanks to intense sights, sounds, smells, for me tracing back to my first visit when the boys were smaller and I was first blown away by its beauty, and for C, tracing back to his many visits as a child and teenager.

The sea is shallow for a long way out. And clear. JNH with his imagination in full-gear as it often is explores the “nothing”, daunted by the thought of that sea stretching on for what seems like forever, and taking some solace even delight in the “something” that he encounters about 20 meters out – a little cluster of rocks on the seabed. 

CMH dives in and out near the water’s edge, getting sunburnt on his bare back having neglected to put suncream on. C and I go back and forth between swimming and sitting on the green plastic loungers with a small “Presidente"-branded table between us holding a bottle of rum, our sunglasses, and the sun-cream that CMH should have put on.

Then a man comes along the beach selling oysters. C has talked many times of the oysters on Sosua beach, and here they are, so we order a plate: the seller cracks them open and squeezes lime over them and because of the time, and the place, and who I am with and their sea saltiness they are more than delicious, I can still conjure that taste to this day.


The past three Fridays while JMH has been playing soccer on Astoria field I’ve walked along Shore Boulevard by East River in the dark (with enough people passing by in pairs or jogging that it feels safe). Each time I’ve spotted a heron down by the water’s edge, blurry as a feint ghost, his body like a stone and neck like a ripple as he steps along looking for fish. The grays merge and diverge – concrete wall, stones, sea-glass, winter tree branches, moonlight and city lights on the water’s surface, and heron. 


On a recent journey back from a work visit to the Netherlands I bought a copy of Passage North by Anuk Arudpragasam. Through a simple train journey from Columbo to the North of Sri Lanka the book speaks of the layers of the civil war, or more precisely the war's aftermath as lived by people who did and who did not experience it. 

It has a style of writing, not exactly stream of consciousness, but stream of related-ness perhaps you could say, with a third person narrator and without quotations, that reminded me of Teju Cole’s “Open City”, a style that has a thinking-while-walking rhythm to it that I like a lot. Arudpragasam was glad when on a World BookClub podcast conversation with Harriett Gilbert (who happens to be one of my former journalism teachers – each time I listen to those podcasts takes me right back into those classrooms in my 20s) – one of the callers asked him to explain more about his style. He said his style is a lot about the ability to control and shape time, in ways that day-to-day life, particularly hyper-distracted day-to-day-life, doesn’t allow.

“Part of what I want to do in writing is to give moments in life that are deserving of time, the time they deserve, time that life doesn’t actually give them.” 

Saturday, July 30, 2022

NY missive no 186 - Dragonfly

The dragonfly balancing on the taut string looks like I feel. She tilts her wings from side to side from time to time and the sun flashes off them. I feel the sun on my cheek (I'm still one for soaking after all these years in New York, where sunshine is somewhat more of a given than in London). Then she's still, then she tilts awkwardly again. Then she flies diagonally up in a quick leap as if to say oh what the hell, here goes. 

Wednesday, May 11, 2022

NY missive no 185 - Dewey


In this picture you can tell that Dewey is an outdoor cat. There is a smudge of grass stain on his front left paw. His back paws are grubby. He is worn out from all the running around. Though I guess an indoor cat could strike a similar pose when sleeping. 

It didn’t cross my mind that we would not let him outside (having grown up in London, perhaps, with a cat flap through which the cat came and went). But T from the adoption center was cautious. Here in New York a lot of cats are indoor cats, who stay comfortable in their apartments, and the street cat scene is not for the faint-hearted. 

We kept the name Dewey. It was next to his photo on the adoption center Powerpoint slide, when T said “how about this one?” because every now and then she rescues a cat that gives a vibe that it would be a good family cat (she couldn’t have been more right). “Dewey”…at first I thought “dewy-eyed” and the name felt flakey but then I thought Dewey Decimal system, then John Dewey and the idea of learning by doing, and rather than debate and decide a new name, Dewey he was, Dewey he is. 

As may or may not be apparent from the photo, he has had his knocks. A distinct bend in his tail, from before he came to us. One ear a little shorter than the other, because the tip was cut off when he was neutered as an identifier because the vet thought he was being re-released to the streets. There was the time he swallowed a shoelace which had to be surgically removed. Now here he is, a four-pawed family member, comforter, entertainer, his own guy, tonight with a little grass stain on one of his paws as he takes a rest. 

Tuesday, January 25, 2022

NY missive no 184 - Vegas

We spent thanksgiving in Las Vegas, with tía Z and Im’a who had recently moved there. Im’a cooked us a feast in their apartment on thanksgiving evening, we strolled the Strip, and the kids eyes were wide as we walked the thick-carpeted ground floor of the hotel where we were staying, with its row upon row of slot machines. The second morning we spent a few hours away from the bright lights at Clark County Wetlands Park on the city’s edge. There wasn’t a lot of water, of course – some streams and damp patches surrounded by tall yellow grass, and beyond that, barren hills under a blue sky. But it was all the more beautiful for that. Temporal vulnerability in an ancient landscape.

The excellent museum was of the hands-on kind. CMH in particular loved it. You could stroke cut-out circles of local animal pelts, use a remote control to move a wildlife camera up and down a tree, match images of birds with their songs. Given my obsession with all things building-related, my highlight was the descriptions of rubble from demolished casinos being used as rip-rap along the Las Vegas Wash. 

The Wash flows into Lake Mead, contributing about two percent of the water in the lake. The lake is reaching scarily low levels; the water-wars world of Paolo Bacigalupi's brilliant novel The Water Knife seems not that far away. The receding water-line is bringing up parts of the past as well: a rotting barrel containing a decomposed body turned up, thought to be the victim of a 70s or 80s casino-related mob hit.

Our last day involved the Las Vegas Tamale and Mariachi festival in downtown, a somewhat abortive trek I led us on to a warehouse-style museum in the Arts District where we flopped for a rest on sofas in an empty room, and tia Z’s much more successful suggestion of go-carting for the kids at the Mini Grand Prix Family Fun Center. And then, we decided, we should find a place for pizza. What followed was a bit like a car treasure-hunt as we found a likely-looking spot on Google maps, drove 10 or 15 minutes to get to it, and for one reason or another had to move on (the six of us in Z’s car – C hasn’t driven since his late teens, and I haven’t since moving to the US in 2007). 

The first place was more of a cake-and-coffee spot than a pizza restaurant. The second was described as a speakeasy restaurant. We figured that was a theme thing, and kids would be welcome. It was a lonely box of a building in the middle of a parking lot. We walked around it a couple of times to try to find an entrance, which we did at the back, but on entering a gloomy reception area there was no-one to be seen, till a wooden slat high up in the wall slide back with a thump, a guy stuck his head out and told us that no under 18s were allowed, and closed the slat back again. The third place was take-out only. The fourth, as goldilocks would have said, was just right. We sat on stools around a high table eating wood-fired pizza and savoring one of those meals that mark time, when family members who see each other only occasionally (particularly during a global pandemic), are, for a moment, together.