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. 

Saturday, January 22, 2022

NY missive no 183 – Fashion Institute of Technology, and “multiple pieces we can play with”

JNH, inspired by “Stranger Things”, has recently become interested in acting. This January he started classes on Saturday mornings at The Barrow Group in Manhattan. It’s near the 28th Street flower markets where we bought the pussy willow branches for C and my wedding, and near 333 Seventh Avenue where my office was when I first moved to New York. So bringing JNH here is like walking through memories. Those memories are seen through a lens of the pandemic – a fine, hazy film that shifts the way things look in retrospect but in ways that are not entirely clear yet, nor should they be.

Today, I spotted the costumes on display through the windows at the Fashion Institute of Technology. Their bright splashes of color are in stark contrast to the modernist gray slabs of the building itself. After dropping JNH off, I went to check them out. All the installations are created by students or teachers at FIT.

There’s “Walking Palm” by Woolpunk, a glorious spindly, stretching tree draped with mossy and occasionally shiny wool. On her website, Woolpunk explains: “Walking Palm is inspired by the tree on the verge of extinction which can be found in the Amazonian Rainforest. The tree has the amazing ability to re-root itself using stilt roots which is the ultimate sign of resilience.” There’s something of a contradiction in that; if it is so resilient, why is it on the verge of extinction, but that just makes you root for it even more.

Woolpunk's Walking Palm

There are breathtaking dresses by Esther Yitao, constraining and liberating at the same time, the wire of the dresses shaping and extending the forms of the women/mannequins who wear them.

Esther Yitao Li, Supima Collection
Esther Yitao Li, Sketch lineup of the "Distortion" collection

Melanie Reim found her collection of shoes in a closet during the pandemic. She decided to draw them one by one, accompanied by their story – stories of buying them, of wearing them, of the places where she was and the people she was with when doing so. “I am a fraction of the way through,” her exhibition statement says, “determined to continue, even as the world opens up, and it will be time for shoe shopping again.”

Melanie Reim, Shoe Stories

And there’s Anabella Bergero’s installation of dresses that emerged from a four-step exploration of the formation of her identity in Argentina and Mexico: old family photographs, including from the Argentinean village where her father was born, dress markets in Mexico where she had shopped for quinceanera accessories, wooden folk masks, and an indigenous festival in Oaxaca. 

“This project was building space for different configurations of identify by first acknowledging that we are not this monolith of how we were born. We have multiple pieces we can play with,” she says.

Anabella Bergero, Constructing Identities

Pieces do not always fit neatly together. Sometimes some are more in focus than others. That is certainly one thing that the pandemic has done, shaken pieces, set them adrift, broken them up or soldered them together, and we can respond - or not - as we feel is right in any given moment, or just watch, and reflect.

Friday, July 16, 2021

NY missive no 182 - From a bird's song

This is a belated post about a bird that appeared in our garden in early Spring. I say appeared, but we never actually saw him. Around 6am or even earlier he would start his high pitched song: “Beeeeeeee – beeeee, be, be-be-be, be-be-be”. And a few minutes later, “Beeeeeeee – beeeee, be, be-be-be, be-be-be”.

This would continue sporadically throughout the morning. Just as you thought he’d gone quiet he would pipe up again. Up high in the wild branches of G’s trees next door, we couldn’t see the source of the song.

Of course, there’s now an app that can recognize birdsong. I downloaded BirdNet, recorded a short segment, and uploaded it for analysis. Apparently those segments travel across to servers at Chemnitz University of Technology in Germany where they are compared with a growing database of millions of bird songs.

The answer came back: “white throated sparrow” (which goes by zonotrichia albicollis in Latin). Hardly exotic, therefore, but that distinctive song will probably stay with me forever, marking a period as the city was beginning to re-open from the pandemic. Our next door neighbor on the other side, T, said he had been hearing it every morning too.

I told P and Dad about the white throated sparrow and BirdNet via WhatsApp and it sparked a flurry of reminiscence about other birds in other places, and other people. I commented that Dad’s brother C, who loved birds and kept learning about them until he died much too young in his forties, would probably not have needed an App to identify the song.

“Yes, C had a ton of books on birds…”, Dad replied, “It was fun in Scotland [where they lived for a while as kids] looking for peregrine falcons and the occasional eagle. I was a bit fascinated by birds of prey.” To which P replied that where she lives, in the Swiss mountains, she loves it when the eagles fly close to the hotel and restaurant that she and her partner run in the Summers: “two of them live in the rocks just above.”

A stream of associations and connection assisted by technology and by the distinctive song of a white-throated sparrow.


It's impossible to quantify what having access to trees has meant this past year. Here's something JNH wrote recently:

"Whenever I go into my garden, and I hear the birds chirping and see the trees waving as if they're saying hi to me, I feel as if my garden is one being, shown to me through many others."

Friday, June 18, 2021

NY missive no 181 - Spicy meatballs and the decline of the Roman Empire

There you have it. So much of what you love about a person condensed into a little moment.

C was cooking spaghetti and meatballs for our supper. He sang one of his invented ditties – this one about “spicy meatballs” – the kind of song that you really wouldn’t sing around anyone except close family, then came across to me picking up off the table his red hardback copy of Edward Gibbon's “The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire” (plucked at some point from a bookshelf at my parents’ house), flipping through it to show me that he’s almost at the end, having reached the chapter called “The Seige of Constantinople”. Head a bit tilted back, wearing his glasses, celebrating the book, that’s my life partner right there.