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. 

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 chriping 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.

Saturday, May 29, 2021

NY missive no 180 - Unisphere and a city coming back to life


Unisphere, May 2021

On Wednesday evenings, JNH’s soccer practice is in Flushing Meadows Corona Park. While he plays, I walk up to the Unisphere. The first time, trees nearby were covered with pink and white blossom which floated down in the wind as people beneath the trees took photos, played, embraced, or sat depending on their age and as so often these days I was struck by the immeasurable value of public spaces with nature – breathing space for bodies and minds, collectively and individually (don’t get me started on the fact that there are growing efforts to put a price tag on nature, co-opting what’s left of the planet as a profit machine ostensibly to save it).

This Wednesday, the blossom was no longer there, but a new spectacle had arrived. Misty fountains of water came up from the ground all along the walkway leading up to the Unisphere, capturing sunlight. The photo illustrates it better than words can. The name “Unisphere” feels more resonant than ever. 

The kids’ soccer practices and matches have taken us all over the city this season. There's been a long subway ride on the N train out to Coney Island, where CMH was thrilled by the sight of the recently re-opened Cyclone and resolved to come back to ride it with C (JNH and I decided we'll do the Aquarium instead). Getting on to the homewards train (after a loss – there have been many) I looked back to glimpse the rollercoaster’s red lettering “CYCLONE” against the night sky. 

There have been taxi rides over the Triborough Bridge to Randall’s Island, invariably looping around and around a few times in search of the right field. The island has over sixty of them, but clustered within small groups for the 10s, 20s, 30s and so on, their assigned numbers go up to 91 which seems even more overwhelming. There have been pier pitches – fancy Pier 5 in Brooklyn Heights looking across to the Financial District, with signs around its edge saying that you’re welcome to fish, but that pregnant women, women of childbearing age and children under 15 shouldn’t eat fish or eels from the East River's waters, and Pier 40 by the Hudson, the athletic field looking less snazzy than it would have done back when it opened in the late '90s.

Back here in Queens, we frequently take the Q18 winding bus to Frank Principe Park in Maspeth. The square of playgrounds and sports fields is edged by Queens-defining elements: a cemetery (Mount Zion)…a gas station (Exxon, handily with a Dunkin’ Donuts outlet inside)…an auto repair shop…a roaring highway (the Queens Midtown Expressway section of the I-495)…suburban-style houses…and a hazy Manhattan skyline in the distance. 

The soccer has taken us to other places too, from Astoria Park to Manhattan Beach, from Long Island City to Sheepshead Bay. Throughout New York there’s an atmosphere of reunification – people reuniting with their city and with each other in typical New York proximity - of relief and fragility, barely-buried trauma, and a heightened appreciation for small things.

Unisphere, April 2021

Saturday, May 8, 2021

NY missive no 179 - Eternal Flame

Yesterday would have been Mum’s 74
th birthday. She died soon after her 70th, four years ago. As I often do on her birthday, I walked down to Socrates Sculpture Park, where we scattered half of her ashes in the East River (the other half we scattered by a big tree in London, which P and I used to climb as kids). 

Down on the sand at Hallet’s Cove there were seagull footprints. We all leave our marks. To be considered, appreciated, each one absolutely unique, eventually erased – actually I should say absorbed – by tidal flows, or generations. 

There was sculpture in the park, called Eternal Flame. As P said when I sent her a photograph, it’s not beautiful to look at. (In fact it could almost look like a crematorium chimney). But the idea is beautiful; it’s a concrete chimney with four barbecue grills at the bottom, which visitors are welcome to use, and which prompts thinking about the communal act of cooking and the fact that at any moment in time, somewhere in the World someone is tending to a cooking fire. 

I sat down on one of the brightly-painted picnic benches by the sculpture, and sent my photo and message to P. I told her that I had walked down to the Sculpture Park with the little blue backpack that Mum used to use, which she always said was so practical and useful. And that, writing "backpack", got me crying. Funny how it can take a very specific object like that to cut through the nonsense and get to the center of how you’re feeling. A kind of emotional acupuncture by objects and memories. 

On Mum's birthday, invariably a bright Spring day, I always feel a mixture of deep sadness, with being inspired and recharged by her memory. 

Eternal Flame sculpture in Socrates Park, from when I was there

And Eternal Flame sculpture from above, from the Socrates Park website