Saturday, November 28, 2009

New York missive no 62 - New life

The stone lions outside New York public library are rather refined compared to the thick-set ones in Trafalgar Square. Their haunches stick up high and their faces have poise. They look as if at any moment they could spring off their pedestals and go for a stroll down Fifth Ave.


In the middle of the ice rink at Rockefeller Plaza was a plump woman wearing purple leggings and a tight-fitting orange sweater. She didn’t look like an ice skater. But there she was, gliding, twirling, slicing, so graceful in her element.


A fabulous poem from WS craft class, by Robinson Jeffers


It nearly cancels my fear of death, my dearest said,
When I think of cremation. To rot in the earth
Is a loathsome end, but to roar up in flame – besides, I
am used to it.
I have flamed with love or fury so often in my life,
No wonder my body is tired, no wonder it is dying.
We had great joy of my body. Scatter the ashes.


I shouldn’t have poems about death on my mind at the moment though, as I’m four months pregnant. It’s funny how this is such a common experience but still such an utterly magical one. Things that I felt I was juggling and not focusing on before have in a bizarre way become easier, like everything has settled into a calmer place. Come mid-May that calm will of course be disrupted by small-hours baby cries but that’s ok. And while I say some things have become easier to get done, that’s not to say extreme absent-mindedness isn’t one of my side effects. The other day I found a dish-cloth that I’d left, for some reason, in the fridge door. And I keep wandering around our apartment looking for things I put down just a minute ago. I say “our apartment” – C and I moved to Astoria a couple of weeks ago having found after a couple of day’s hunting a rare thing: SPACE near the city that we can afford, just about.

I’ve had amusing moments like standing in the elevator at work with two other people, thinking to myself “little do you know there are actually four of us in here” (kind of). And speaking to a monosyllabic woman at the health insurance company in order to “authorize” my pregnancy. Wasn’t it a bit late for any kind of authorization? And who was the health company to be authorizing it or not? “Name?”, she asked, “Date of birth?”, “Place of delivery?” (as if talking about a Fedex package), then, “normal pregnancy?”, “normal birth?” (as if I could know that yet).

I've also had a bizarrely intense fascination with living things, especially in the early stages through a haze of queasiness. Like watching squirrels in Union Square, or flocks of tiny birds on the High Line. I intend not to overload Ewiny with yumsy-mumsy things though, instead just bring this new experience into the mix. Nor do I intend to post any sonogram images, which seems to be the new fad on Facebook.

C and I are wondering how many other Dominican-American-British kids there are. However many, there’s a high chance they’re in New York.


My other bit of life-changing news is that C and I are now engaged, after a highly romantic proposal in a little hut, by a lake, in Central Park surrounded by Autumn leaves.

Friday, October 16, 2009

New York missive no 61 - Taking Amartya Sen's seat

New York is the man on the corner of Fifth Avenue and 50th Street saying his evening prayers on a little rug laid out by the food cart where he sells kebabs, a torrent of workers and shoppers passing him by.


At a discussion on human rights and detention last week at Columbia University with Sir Nigel Rodley, Scott Horton, Peter Rosenblum and others, David Fathi of Human Rights Watch began his talk with some statistics. In the US, 2.4 million people are in prison on a given day. That’s 762 people per 100,000. By comparison, in the UK 152 people per 100,000 are in prison, in Canada 116, and in Japan, 63.

During the questions I asked about the implications of the increasing privatization of the prison system. Rodley first emphasized that any level of privatization does not absolve the state of its responsibilities. Then he added that “all my instincts tell me that outsourcing of this fundamental role of government is to be avoided.”

Fathi concisely summarized the main problems with prison privatization. The profit-motive means private centers will always be looking for ways to minimize costs, including by reducing staff and training – hence it’s not surprising that a higher number of abuses take place in private than in state-run facilities. There is a serious lack of transparency around private prison firms – for example they are not usually subject to federal and state freedom of information legislation. And the “consumer choice” argument – that private systems improve standards because customers can reject products or services for better ones – doesn’t exactly apply to prisoners.


On a rather lighter, or at least more entertaining note than the detention discussion, I heard Pedro Almodóvar holding forth for a couple of hours last Saturday at the Lincoln Center. He was talking about his “history of cinema” with the New York Film Festival Director Richard Peña, interspersing the conversation with clips from his and his mentors’ films.

The audience was in fits of laughter half the time but cruelty did still crop up. “Legitimate cruelty is unfortunately part of our work” (as directors), he said. The first he clip he showed was from Cassavetes’ Opening Night, when Gena Rowlands, playing an actress called Myrtle, is blind-drunk before the curtain raises on the opening night of the play she’s starring in, Second Woman. She’s stumbling along the backstage corridors, collapsing from time to time on the floor. The camera sways and crashes with her. The play’s Director, acted by Ben Gazzara, walks slowly behind her, watching. He does not lift a finger to help and gets angry when another character tries to. That scene epitomized, Almodóvar said, the way in which directors, despite being “everything” to their actors – father, shrink, teacher, confidante, lover etc. – ultimately have to leave the actors to work through their challenges and problems alone. And I’ve worked with plenty of actresses whose problems are much bigger than their talent, he added.


That was quite a weekend of New York it’s-all-at-your-fingertips culture. The previous night L and I saw the Peruvian criollo / música negra singer Eva Ayllón at Queens Theater in the park (right out in Flushing, in the park next to the eerie huge steel globe donated by US Steel for the World Fair).

Ayllón’s compatriot, the singer Zambo Cavero, had died earlier that day and she was clearly emotionally distraught by it. Her singing was beautiful but at one point she staggered offstage leaving the cajón and guitar players to their own improvised devices until she remerged. She’s getting on in years and god knows how she held out through the second two-hour concert that was starting soon after ours ended.

The concert made me more excited than I already am about going back to Lima in December, ten years after I lived there. Seems I’m susceptible to falling in love with cities.


Well I never. I’m so often looking for adventure “elsewhere”, restlessly wondering what lies just round the corner, or in another part of town, or on the other side of the planet. And a miraculous adventure turns up right here, close to me as it can be. To be continued...


I embarrassed myself at the Carnegie Council the other day. Amartya Sen was giving a breakfast talk on his new book The Idea of Justice. I arrived a bit late, so the room was already full of people sitting at round white-clothed tables laden with orange juice and croissants, and Sen was in full flow. The woman who showed me in to the room whispered, “there’s one spare chair you can sit in, over there by the podium”. Right under Sen’s nose. I had no choice but to stride out through the room to the table next to him. Once there I spotted another vacant chair, less directly in front of him. So as subtly as possible I sat in it, started listening attentively, and attempted to ignore the (mostly elderly) disapproving faces staring at me.

Then I realized that I was sitting in Sen’s chair. Cheeky upstart with the guts to sit in the Nobel prize-winning economist’s seat, I could feel those faces thinking. Oh well, I was stuck. Luckily the event closed with a Q&A and Sen didn’t need to reclaim his seat. And at least I was in a good position to apologise to him afterwards – he was most gracious.

In his talk, Sen mentioned that the Idea of Justice draws on Adam Smith’s book the Theory of Moral Sentiments, written 17 years before Wealth of Nations and marking its 250th anniversary this year. Smith talked about the dangers that parochialism poses to justice. In other words the fact that confining discussion of a particular issue within a small society can lead to dangerous parochialism, and in turn, to injustice. Instead what is needed is scrutiny from a distance. Or to quote Smith, "The eyes of the rest of mankind must be invoked to understand whether a punishment appears equitable." This scrutiny said Sen, “may be useful for practices as different as the stoning of adulterous women in Taliban Afghanistan; selective abortion of female fetuses in China, Korea, and parts of India; and plentiful use of capital punishment in China, or for that matter the United States….”

He continued:

"It is important, however, to recognize that to listen to distant voices, which is part of Adam Smith’s exercise of invoking the 'impartial spectator' in The Theory of Moral Sentiments, does not require us to be respectful of every argument that may come from abroad. That would be absurd. We may reject a great many of the proposed arguments, sometimes even all of them, and yet there would remain particular cases of reasoning that could make us reconsider our own understandings and views linked with the experiences and conventions entrenched in a given country or culture.

The interdependence of reasoning is part of the ground on which Martin Luther King Jr. said in 'The Letter from Birmingham Jail' in April 1963: 'Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.'"


I’ve had a rarely, for me, un-exploratory week off work – a combination of working in cafés on my book proposal (so work of sorts) and pottering around the city. What bliss to be out and about in the city on weekdays. Especially in West Village, which can be heaving at the weekends yet is remarkably tranquil during the week. And elsewhere: on Wednesday I went up to the top North East corner of Central Park and walked down to Columbus Circle – the whole top section of the park was an oasis of calm.

The café-sitting has meant eavesdropping some interesting conversations. For example the guy this morning, talking on his phone: “How many bones do you get for that?...And how big are the bones? Two inches, three inches across? Ok, well get one of the big ones and one of the small ones. Oh ok. Well get a mixed bag of…ah, how much are those? How much? Nah…just get the bones…And like, a pumpkin to put them in.”

The pumpkin bit broke the spell somewhat…implying the whole thing had something to do with Halloween.


Just before and after paying avid attention to that conversation I was reading an opinion piece in the New York Times article on conceptual art, by Dennis Dutton of the University of Canterbury in New Zealand. It made a lot of sense, I thought. “Somewhere out there in collectorland is the unlucky guy who will be the last one holding the vacuum cleaner, and wondering why…” he said. The point being that conceptual art – Damien Hirst’s preserved sharks or his new medicine cabinets for example – depends “not on immediately recognizable skill, but on how the work is situated in today’s intellectual zeitgeist.” So it’s unlikely to withstand the test of time: future generations are unlikely to “get” it and if they do, it will no doubt seem rather dated, more a “historical curiosity” than a work of art.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

New York missive no 60 - City limits

The end of episode 5 of Ric Burns’ epic “New York” documentary is about the skyscraper wars during the early 20th Century. The goal, it seemed, was to prove the "sky is not the limit". Higher and higher they built – the Woolworth Building, the Chrysler which sneakily outdid the Woolworth by erecting a tall spike on top at the last minute, and then the towering Empire State whose plans were approved just before Black Tuesday and whose construction continued regardless.

The documentary includes awe-inspiring footage of the steel-workers, welders and carpenters building the skyscraper, their overalled figures silhouetted against clouds. The 102-storey construction took 14 months to build. When finished it was a monument in spite of the depression – "hey, look, New York can still build the tallest building in the world". It was also a monument to the depression, as the majority of its office space proved impossible to fill and most of its revenue came from tourists climbing to see the view.

What struck me about the sweeping views of the city during these scenes were not its buildings, but its rivers. There they are always. Changeless while the city they embrace transforms. The Hudson and East River flow continuously but they are the most solid part of the city. They hold its shape while people pile the land high with roads, rails and buildings, leaving what they think are significant marks.

The end of the episode echoed my thoughts, with this quote from Scott FitzGerald’s "My Lost City" in which he describes his reactions to the view from the top of the Empire State Building:

"Then I understood – everything was explained: I had discovered the crowning error of the city, its Pandora's box. Full of vaunting pride the New Yorker had climbed here and seen with dismay what he had never suspected, that the city was not the endless succession of canyons that he had supposed but that it had limits – from the tallest structure he saw for the first time that it faded out into the country on all sides, into an expanse of green and blue that alone was limitless. And with the awful realization that New York was a city after all and not a universe, the whole shining edifice that he had reared in his imagination came crashing to the ground."

Not such an awful realization. Without its limits the city couldn’t be lovable.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

New York missive no 59 - Teddy Kennedy, leadership, Diane Wilson, dragon boats

On a Friday evening, after dark, C and I found ourselves overlooking East River straight at the abandoned smallpox hospital on Roosevelt island. It looked back at us with its black, hollow eyes set in a ghostly rectangular face of pale bricks.


In death, compassion is recognized as heroic. If only that was the case in life.

The press and commentaries on Teddy Kennedy’s death were quick to praise his championing of the underdog. They described the ways in which he steadfastly supported workers, the uninsured, the sick, the immigrant, and how he saw his privilege as a responsibility to help others.

The one time I ever saw him in person was at a congressional hearing held by the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, about the working conditions of Florida’s mainly-immigrant tomato-pickers.

Yet I cannot help feeling that in life those qualities of compassion and a steadfast commitment to justice are not given the credit they deserve. Despite the shift in tone here in the US that has followed Obama’s election (currently soured anyway by divisive, smeary debates on health care reform), they are sidelined as idealistic, rather than recognized as the qualities of leadership that can bring about real “progress”.


A few years back, JN walked into the office and asked, in her enthusiastic school-teachery way, “Can you name an inspiring global leader? One who’s alive today?” Ummmm…there was an awkward pause. "Mandela?" ventured some. And that was about it.

Now, many would say Obama as well. A global leader in the sense that (among other things), he can navigate the complexities of globalization, resist seeing things in black and white however much pressure there is to do so, while at the same time never losing a sense of direction. He keeps sight of the bigger picture that underlies every decision, one that has fairness at its core. I was surprised that Michael Moore, in a recent Rolling Stone interview about Obama’s first six months, was still overwhelmingly supportive – his theory being that any perceived over-compromises he has made are part of a broader strategy to keep things moving in the right direction.

But more than ever, leadership is as much about pushing up from the bottom as it is inspiring from the top. I recently read "An Unreasonable Woman" the autobiography of Diane Wilson about her persistent, painstaking campaign to combat pollution by Formosa’s plastic factory and other industrial projects by Seadrift in Texas, where she had worked for years as a shrimper. She new nothing, at first, about environmental campaign strategies, litigation, the regulation of toxic pollutants and the dirty tactics business would employ to evade that regulation. But that didn’t matter. She did know that the damage being done to her bay, her sea – in her eyes a physical creature who "still talks even though she's got a mercury Superfund on her left breast and vinyl chloride and phthalates on her right breast” – was wrong. She knew that however many people called her crazy, she wasn’t going to rest until she stopped it.


Apparently in the UK – and I guess elsewhere as well – companies perceive criticism printed in a newspaper as more libelous than criticism that only appears on the internet, even though defamation laws apply equally to both. Something about the fact of printing and producing a paper gives the impression the words have more weight, are harder to remove and can do more damage. That’s a little illogical. Words online can reach a far wider audience than printed words, and they have a tendency to self-propagate, appearing on two, four, twenty, a hundred different websites and blogs making them all but impossible to erase.

That attitude implies electronic words have less ‘value’ than printed words. So what does that mean for the shift from printed books to e-books – for the rise of Kindle? Of course, the phasing out of printed books is inevitable, though I’ll lamenting along with others the loss of the smell of pages, of pen-scribbles in margins, of sagging bookshelves. But will words really mean less when they appear on screens from which they can come and go, be uploaded and downloaded? Burning books is seen as sacrilege. Wiping an electronic book off your hard drive isn’t.


, the Rockfellers' estate up the Hudson River at Sleepy Hollow is staggeringly beautiful. It inspires conflicting emotions of delight, envy and queasiness at the sight of so much wealth concentrated in one family. Wealth built on the back of Standard Oil –via large-scale exploitation, or wealth-generation for others, or both, whichever way you want to look at it.

“Money can buy you anything” is epitomized there. You like Picasso? Then commission a series of gigantic tapestries of his paintings to hang in your basement art gallery. How about the sculptors Henry Moore, Alexander Calder, David Smith? Fill your landscaped gardens with their work. And want to protect the view of rolling forested hills from your living room window? Get the government to designate it a national park (and thank god they did otherwise that stretch of the Hudson would no doubt by now be smothered in identikit condo blocks).

C and I went up there by train a few weekends ago. The train tracks run alongside the river, which inspired me to get kayaking (one day!). And despite the crazy opulence of Kykuit itself our day was characterized by magical moments that money could never buy. We sat under a tree eating tomatoes and strong cheese on a hunk of bread (actually money did have to buy us that – from a pricey Tarrytown farmers’ market). We encountered two inquisitive deer when we set out on a walk down the Croton aqueduct. We snuck through back gardens when the aqueduct path disappeared on us. I got the giggles at something C said and spat the water I’d just sipped all over the place. From a river wall in Irvington we glimpsed the shadowy forms of the Manhattan skyline, way downstream. We felt sleepy and content on the train on the way home, me gazing at sunsetted scenery flicking past the window, C scribbling bits of a poem on yellow postit notes.


Labour-day weekend involved jumping in and out of a swimming pool at a big house in the middle of nowhere in Rhode island with a bunch of C’s university friends.

One morning, while I was lying on my belly reading Frank Norris’ "Octopus - A California Story", a small rust-coloured butterfly settled just in front of my nose. It opened and closed its wings, like it was hesitantly applauding the day’s performance.


We took a break from the dragon boat festival at Flushing in Queens to go and see the "Panorama of the City of New York", the scale architectural model of the city built by Robert Moses for the 1964 World's Fair. The one I’d seen on my Queens exploration very soon after I moved to the city, almost two years ago. How wonderful to walk around the map again and for it to feel so much more familiar, alive. It had sprouted memories.

I’m giving my love of the city an extra stoke by watching Ric Burn’s mammoth documentary series “New York” – in bits, taken out of an old-school DVD shop on Greenwich Avenue.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

New York missive no 59 - Blackberries

A blackberry. What’s the first thing that comes into your mind? An electronic hand-held device for receiving, reading, sending emails? Or a succulent piece of fruit composed of juicy purple beads? A fruit that grows on brambles at the back of gardens and tangled in hedgerows.

I had just eaten blackberries – huge ones – in my Mojo café yoghurt and fruit (a regular and now so familiar indulgence). I had a moment of blackberry appreciation, so I wrote the word down, “Blackberry”, ready to be turned into more words at a later date.

Then I looked back at the page, saw "blackberry" written there, and the first thing that came into my head was the electronic variety.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

New York missive no 58

Woman walking in a very short skirt through West Village with your dog, do you know that your legs don’t look that good from behind? I wonder...maybe so, and you don’t care. That’s cool.


The yellow dress that Michelle Obama wore to her husband’s inauguration in January is on display at Fashion Institute of Technology, just over the road from my work. So I went to check it out one lunchtime. It’s there along with lots of other outfits by its Cuban designer Isabel Toledo, who, I felt (being as far from a fashion expert as possible hence not really in a position to comment), designs fabulous shapes but often misfires on the material. Michelle’s inauguration suit, for example, is an elegantly dramatic shape and a striking colour but up close the fabric looks a bit like a sofa cover, heavy and floral.

The exhibition is called "Fashion from the Inside Out," because, Toledo says, that’s the way that she sees her work. "I never thought of myself as a designer. I’m a seamstress. I really love the technique of sewing more than anything else. The seamstress is the one who views fashion from the inside! That’s the art form, really – the technique of how it’s done." The dresses on display were technical masterpieces (again - says I, the absolute novice). Ah, and of naming, which appealed to me of course. There were Origami dresses, folded to create sail-like collars and backs, the Double Tier Pagoda dress, Blossom Sleeve Bolero and Balloon dress, a Butterfly Wingspan jacket, a jersey dress called Tequila Sunrise, and the Cage dress, made of little black bars hung over the shoulders. Lots of descriptions and pictures here.

The week after seeing that exhibition, dramatic dresses caught my eye. There was the woman on the corner of Greenwich Ave and West 13th wearing a fluorescent green one, and the woman with pink hair and a whispy orange floaty dress at a Lincoln Centre Out of Doors concert (where I had a brightish blue sundress on). The concert involved 200 electric guitars. It would have been more dramatic had we got there in time to be in the centre of things rather than tucked away under the trees, but was relaxing in a zenny-summer evening way.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

New York missive no 57 - A strange view of reverse racism

“Segregation today, segregation tomorrow, segregation for ever.” That was Alabama senator George Wallace at his inauguration speech in 1963. How ridiculous history can make people seem (aside from the terrifying ridiculousness of that statement in the first place). Parts of that speech were used in the film “Soundtrack for a revolution” that I saw on Sunday. Supposedly about the role of music in the civil rights movement, it provided a good chronology of the movement and powerful footage – including of the songs. But it forgot, it seemed, to reveal anything new about the music, which was a shame.

Race has been in the news at the moment. On Saturday, there was the sense of another racial barrier broken down as Sonia Sotomayor was sworn in as the first Latino Supreme Court Judge. There was the centenary of the Natl. Association for the Advancement of Colored People, at which many questioned its continued relevance (even though, for example, just a few weeks previously, a private swimming club in Philadephia canceled its contract with a group of mostly black and Latino children to swim there once a week, after objections from white parents). There was the arrest of the Harvard Professor Henry Louis Junior on his doorstep by the white police officer James Crowley, leading to Obama’s statement that the police “acted stupidly”, followed shortly after by his concession that his words may have been ill chosen, and the “beer summit” between Obama, Biden, Gates and Crowley on the White House lawn.

In her Talk of the Town last week Kelefa Sanneh used the beer summit as a springboard for a commentary on reverse racism. She traces emerging perceptions of anti-white discrimination (including critical responses to affirmative action policies, and people claiming Obama’s “acted stupidly” was an example of reverse racism). Then she says, “In the past few decades…reverse racism has undergone a similar re-definition [as discrimination against blacks], from symptom to system…In fact, the ‘reverse’ has largely been dropped from ‘reverse racism’; in today’s mainstream political discourse, ‘racism’ regularly refers to anti-white racism”. She concludes that by the end of the beer summit, “Obama, for his part, seemed ready, maybe even eager, to change the subject. He had discovered, surely, that a black President can pay a price for talking about racism. And he was no doubt reminded that to some Americans 'racism' doesn’t mean what it used to.” Ok, with the insertion of “some Americans” Sanneh distances herself subtly from this argument. But whoah, hold on a minute…

“Systemic” reverse racism – “systemic” racism against whites? I don’t think so. The systemic nature of racism is tied, in part, to its collective experience. (It's we - not "I" - shall overcome). Of course, one person can be racist towards another by judging or discriminating against them on the basis of their race, whatever that race may be. But there is a vast distance between the disgruntlement of whites in the face of affirmative action or instances of misplaced presumptions of racism on their part, and the collective discrimination that was and to an extent still is experienced by blacks in the US. An entrenched process that has ripple effects through time, across generations, so that, as Gary Younge points out in the same article I linked to above, “One in three black boys born in 2001 is destined to go to jail, according to the Sentencing Project", and "thanks to civil rights victories, African Americans now have the right to go into any restaurant they wish. But thanks to the legacy of segregation and continuing discrimination many cannot afford what is on the menu."

Whites have never and never will experience the collective humiliation that gave rise to the civil rights movement. I can't see whites needing to sing "We shall overcome" anytime soon.

Friday, July 31, 2009

New York missive no 56 - Brighton Beach, Governor's Island, and tapestries

New York’s stormy this Summer. There’s a humidity that brews then explodes at intervals, drenching pedestrians.

On Saturday, C and I got to Brighton Beach just when a monsoon-like downpour hit. Thousands of people in skimpy beach clothes were sprinting off the beach (we were headed towards it in search of L), scurrying for shelter even though they were already soaked to the skin, and not sure where the shelter they were scurrying to was, and flapping sodden towels behind them.

We squashed with lots of others beneath some scaffolding where L found us. In 10 minutes there was clear sky and sunshine and bodies beach towels were re-established on the sand. A long swim in the sea made me, as it always does, a happy creature. Then a feast of food from the former Soviet union in a 80s-style cafe blaring cheesy Russian pop. Despite the strong post-Soviet influence the beach was diverse of course - a cross-section of all New York escaping the streets to get salty and sandy, and relax (for the brief period that New Yorkers are able to).

On Governor’s Island the next day for a Judy Collins concert we kept casting wary glances to the sky. It had ominously dark patches like eye bags. But no rain. The rain didn’t come till the evening when AG and I watched from our window West Village fashionistas try to protect their meager dresses (the meagerer the costlier) and shoulder-slung shopping bags from the downpour. Then another storm came in during my writing class on Wednesday. We sat round in CW’s apartment commenting on each others work to the deafening accompaniment of thunder claps.

Unlike the previous week, CW's big cats left me alone. Then, I seemed to have the appeal of a saucer of milk – they didn’t quite lap me up but did stalk around my chair and slink across my shins which was somewhat distracting and gave me the giggles. They must have smelt C’s cats on me and liked it.

During the class we briefly described elements of our “material”, i.e. the stuff we want to write about. The classes have been all about mining that material without spelling it out. So it was interesting to pause and think about what exactly that material is. Here’s what I jotted down - very much an instinctive and provisional list:

Prisons: More broadly, freedom and what it means to have or not to have it. And also injustice – in itself (because it makes me angry, hence good material), and how people deal it out and deal with it. Interested in perpetrators and victims – the power dynamics involved.

Navigation: Of places and of lives – combining maps of cities and places with the ways that people navigate themselves and each other. How people need to put markers down, choose which direction to take and what’s significant, give meaning (or a sense of direction) to things where there may be none, etc. Exploration, openness, curiosity, exposure.

Legacy: How people want to leave their mark on the world. Something that will stay behind after they die. Could be something built, something written, something painted, or a child.

Leaving: How people hurt themselves and each other by leaving – but can equally hurt themselves and each other by staying. The tension that causes.

Mental health: How vulnerable our minds make us. Responses to trauma. And how people described as ‘mad’ are often the wisest.

Nature: As a backdrop to everything. Because that’s where we come from.

Other things: The sea, snakes. Magic in ordinary things.


Seems to be a Radiohead revival at the moment. Am in Mojo (heavy thunderclouds brewing outside) and it’s playing, and in my other early morning hangout, the Roasting Plant at 7th and Greenwich Aves it’s on all the time.


Tapestries are assuming significance. There was my encounter with Elias Sime's beautiful tapestries early this year, and the memories they brought back of my grandmother’s (among so many other things they were part of her legacy – the mark she has left on the world). There’s CA’s search for the right big tapestry for his wall. And to zoom further out of my immediate world, the new Director of the Met, Thomas Campbell, is a tapestry guru. Can't be many of them in the world. Rebecca Mead did a captivating profile of him in last week’s New Yorker.


As magnificent as the thunderstorms are the luminous calms that follows them. I'm about to emerge from the coffee shop into one.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

New York missive no 55 - Arrival of the High Line

Three walks up the High Line.

Something magnificent has appeared on the western edge of Manhattan. I say “appeared”, but it is more the result of dedicated design and years of hard work. Originally an elevated freight train line built in the 1930s, the last train ran along the High Line in 1980 and it has now been transformed into a long, thin park. It’s a splash of wild green slicing up through the mix of fast-disappearing warehouses and fast-developing expensive apartment blocks that make up the west of the meatpacking district and Chelsea.

A few days after it opened I walked along it to work (just a little detour west from my usual route, oh lucky me). It was 7 in the morning so there was hardly anyone else there. Just a man by an easel painting the view and a very occasional jogger. I took my time, taking what I thought were arty photos. Of the wide staircase up to it from the end of Gansevoort Street, with its high walls that make you feel like a train emerging into light from the end of a tunnel. Of the smart and scruffy urban scenes that crowd beside and below it – a yard full of scrap including a mannequin wearing a spacesuit, ceramic urns and an old tv set…glimpses of the Hudson river…pipes and air conditioning units…redbrick-blue-glass-plain-glass buildings…a metal rack of new cars (is that what they’re called?) – and of the High Line itself with its wooden walkway and freshly-planted plants that still looked a little vulnerable.

The second time, I walked faster – a more New Yorkerly pace now that the childish wonder had gone. Like a traveler getting used to being in a new city and putting on an air of “I know my way round this place”. (Oh dear, is that as long as amazement lasts – just one day – in this city where surprise is so commonplace? But that sounds mournful, which is unintended. It’s the constantly vanishing then regenerated sense of surprise that I love about New York, and the knowledge that I’m sharing that feeling with so many millions of others, alive and dead). The painter was there again with his easel. This time he was just beyond the new Standard Hotel which is meant to be oh-so-cool but from the outside looks little more than a concrete slab. And there was another man, who seemed to be experiencing what I had been the first time. Now he was the one dawdling with his camera, tugged this way and that by the quirky angles begging to be snapped.

The third time I walk along the High Line is about 10 days later, after returning from a trip to London and Amsterdam. Wow the plants have grown fast. The seedlings by the south end are almost trees already. There are wild flowers of all kinds, including some dramatic purple prongs. And hovering all about the place like bees are High Line staff in shorts and new T-shirts, clutching trowels, being productive and making me think what a fabulous way to spend a morning. The awe’s returned. (Thought I’d throw in a past-to-present tense change there…having experimented with it in latest creative writing piece and thinking it suits…).

As P said in a recent email from the Swiss mountains that are now her home: “Nature designs in perfect balance, every single element with a purpose and function and the most aesthetically pleasing result. You will never see a flower with clashing colours, a disproportioned tree, or hear a bird sing out of tune. And yet the number of different designs is phenomenal…So I’ve decided - nature is the icon and peak of design that all should aspire too…I think if you are to design something, approach it as nature would.”

Or in the case of the High Line, design it with nature.


A delightful conversation of sorts overheard in a coffee-shop last week. A man in his mid-forties and a younger woman were playing chess on a tiny board. I thought, but might have just been imagining it, that the man was savouring the times when it was the girl’s move, because she would be staring intently at the board and he was able to sit back and stare gently at her. The conversation was more remarks than conversation.

“I should have killed your bishop” (her).

Then a few moves later when he returns from the bathroom, “Man how exciting, how very exciting. I could get killed. Seriously killed.” (him).

“That’s what I like to hear” (her).

“Aha. But no.” (him).

“Damn I always loose because of that.” (her, as he deftly slips, with a little hop of a castle or prance of a knight – I couldn’t see – out of danger’s way using an escape route she hadn't forseen).


Last weekend was a precious weekend in Amsterdam catching up with K. We strolled and talked and strolled and talked. We saw herons disappointed on Sunday when it was raining and when the Albert Cuyp market outside K and T’s apartment was closed (hence no herrings for them). Silly birds they just stood there on top of cars and on rooftops getting their feathers wet, waiting for the rain to pass. We did eat herring though – hah – bought the day before. We saw a Klezmer band at the BadCyup. It was, it seemed, the first gig for the young girl playing the accordion. She was playing well and loving it but cringing shyly whenever she was brought centre-stage – K said she thought that’s what I would be like (something to do with my not liking having my photo taken no doubt). I admired the way that K has decorated their bathroom wall with covers of penguin books cut from “700 Penguins”. And we cooked. Hooray! I realized how crazy it is that I never, ever cook in New York. I resolved to do so more but am already doubting my own resolution. We made delicious veggie things from the Ottolenghi cookbook involving broad beans, radishes, pickled lemons, grilled halloumi, asparagus, coriander, garlic, grilled cherry tomatoes, courgette…(not all in the same recipe).

Sunday, June 28, 2009

New York missive no 54 - Horseshoe crabs

Perfect as a pebble.

Lying flat on my back on the grass under the sun near Battery Park and all becomes clear. My legs are tucked up crossed like a horizontal meditative pose. There’s this thing I’ll call my distance. A physical-mental thing, if it had a shape I think it would be a triangle. It means that I hold back from a straight-forward all-engrossing two way relationship. Introduce a third point. Another relationship, just to complicate matters. Or just “other things”. Doors that are not yet open but might be interesting. It’s a strange thing, keeps me in a kind of limbo land. It keeps me free and inspired and entertained, which are all good. But it also stops me from plunging into the heart of things. A triangle.

Maybe that’s why Le Clézio’s talk resonated with me so much. He had an apparent total engagement with the world and with the moment, as well as calm. I’m not bad at the engagement, but off it goes in all directions at once, keeping the calm out. Something to work on, as I’ve told myself many a time before. I used the word “apparent” for Le Clézio purposefully. Who knows, maybe he has his demons too, and is just good at tempering them when he talks in public.


I hadn’t seen a horseshoe crab ever before, then suddenly encountered hundreds. P and I went for a swim at the run. The run is a little flow of water along the edge of a Chesapeake tributary, protected by a sandy barrier. P used to swim there as a girl, and I could sense her delighted thrill of memory as we took off our shorts and t-shirts, left them on old plastic chairs dotted with caked bird poo and, in our bathing suits and canvas shoes, stepped over the syncopated rocks and waded into the cold river. We swam across with happy though slightly timid breaststrokes, underlined with that river-swimming wonder about what might be swimming alongside us. Then as we climbed out on the other side I saw two dark flat shapes lumbering along the shoreline. Then two more. Horseshoe crabs. Their prehistoric tanks of shells hid the living, breathing, mating bodies underneath – bodies locked together as their invisible legs carried them along in a straight line (why the need to move?). Then two more, two more, they were everywhere, the whole shore was covered with crabs in the act of creating more crabs. I felt, stepping quietly around them, like I was trespassing on their ancient rhythms.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

New York missive no 53 - Writing New York; Roth, Selby, McInerney, Fitzgerald


In Bangladesh, on 16 January 2008, 45-year-old Samir Shil was crushed to death while he was loading goods onto a ship at Clinker Jetty, Chittagong. In March in Comilla, three construction workers Abdul Haque (21), Md. Habibur Rahman (20) and Md Monir (32) all suffocated to death when they entered the sceptic tank of an unfinished building. In May, In Dhaka, Ms Kulsum Begum (35) was electrocuted to death when she tried to release herself from a machine in Young Star Sweater Factory. Her sari had become entangled while she was cleaning it.

Those are just five of the 305 workers named in a new report by the Center for Corporate Accountability, “Workplace deaths in the industrial, service and agricultural sectors of Bangladesh, 2008”. And those 305 deaths are only those that are reported in local newspapers. The ILO estimates that there are around 1,625 industrial and service sector deaths in Bangladesh each year.

The report is powerful because it names the workers who died. It tells us who they were, instead of merely subsuming them into statistics. It reminded me how much we overlook the need to name. “Important” people’s names, yes, we’re all familiar with those and they are always s-p-e-l-l-e-d o-u-t i-n f-u-l-l. The rest, well, they’re just the rest. I’m reading Studs Terkel’s fabulous book “Working” at the moment, which is essentially the transcripts of detailed interviews with workers in 1970s America, from farmer to receptionist, gravedigger to actor. The workers’ own words convey so much more meaning than any removed professor or reporter analyzing their worlds could do. The first interviewee is a steelworker, called Mike Lefevre. He says:

“Somebody built the pyramids. Somebody’s going to build something. Pyramids, Empire State Building – these things just don’t happen. There’s hard work behind it. I would like to see a building, say, the Empire State, I would like to see on one side of it a foot-wide strip from top to bottom with the name of every bricklayer, the name of every electrician, with all the names.”


I’ve been inspired by two girlfriends recently.

RF has just run a 150-mile marathon in the Namibian dessert. It was about six days of running, with one non-stop run of 24 hours. “You’re mad”, people had said while she was training, running around Manhattan with a heavy backpack of rice on her back. “Our bodies aren’t made for that.” “Why are you doing it?!” She carried on regardless, coming 79th out of 220 people (most of them brawny men), and raising over $2000 in the process for WEECE, that provides micro-loans to women in Tanzania. She showed that when you want to do something and focus on it, you can. “Well, within reason,” she pointed out in a typically sensible way. “Not everyone can become an astrophysicist."

And inspirational MJ, who died in May after battling cancer with a boundlessly optimistic and energetic spirit. Going to the cafés we used to go to, reading back on her enthusiastic emails, it’s so strange to think that she’s not here any more. AL has created a blog in her memory, The Mia Abides. I can’t help feeling, why her, why not me, of course there's no reason - life’s a fragile and precious gift and it’s our responsibility to treasure and value it.


Last Sunday I was a happy tramp feeling proudly incongruous as I walked back through West Village from a sail on the Hudson, hair bedraggled, bruised legs and even a rip in my shorts. I have no idea how the rip got there. It could well have been while we tried to get our Soling waterbound again after running aground somewhere off the Edgewater shore. Eventually a speedboat-full of fluorescent sunglass-wearing Russians towed us back into our depth.


So is New York City redundant? That was the thread of the discussion in the last session of the New School course on the city told through its writers. New York was born as a merchant, commercial city, a trading post where goods were brought, sold and shipped on. And then in the 19th and early 20th century, it was an industrial city, a whirr of production. Then the corporate city, focused on processing information. Through each of those phases, its body of buildings and factories and transport links was designed to fit those purposes. And now? Interactions, transactions, money-management and information-generation can all be virtual, leading to the question of what the city itself is for. Yet people still come.

They come because they’re dreaming of realizing a kind of life. And because other people are here doing the same thing. In that way the city will never change. It’s the ultimate “place to be”, both life-challenging, and life-affirming. Here, those dreams collide in their thousands and feed of each other. More often than not the dreams themselves aren’t realized but through their breaking and changing a stronger humanity emerges. The truth of the city is constructed of those dreams, of imagination, and of experience, more than with bricks and stone. And words and stories are the most capable tools we have to capture that truth (a futile but inevitable and essential endeavour). In the thick of it all, writers document actions, reactions and interactions, save moments and carve out specifics – those tiny details that speak for everything.

The writers we read for that course put distinctive voices to work, showing how people react to the city and vice versa (it's that process of osmosis again). This isn’t right, or wrong, they said, it’s how it is, at this time, for these people in this place. Now it’s up to you, reader, to react. The authors were Melville, Henry Roth, Dos Passos, Scot FitzGerald, Claude Brown, Toni Morrison, Hugh Selby, Jay McInerney, Bret Easton Ellis, Paul Auster and then finally a token (though in itself brilliant) “post 9-11” story, Patrick McGrath's Ground Zero, from Ghost Town. (A novel that successfully captures this time, JS felt, is yet to be written. Which is rather depressing given that we’re eight years on now). I could wallow a while on each of them but for lack of time will be lazy – here are a few my reactions from when I read them. They don't make much sense without the accompaniment of the books they're about, but thought I'd post them anyway.

First, something general on the city and its inhabitants: “It’s impossible to say if our lives are impoverished or enriched by our relationship with the city. They’re both at once. It’s a relationship like so many others. Passionate, intense, with rejections and make-ups and misunderstandings and ecstatic moments but with the somewhat sick difference that one partner in this relationship feels nothing, nada, for the other. Or am I mistaken? City, do you miss me when I’m gone?"

Call it Sleep, Henry Roth:

Call it Sleep is David’s journey forging an identity in a city that ignores him. Right at the start of the novel he is already aware 'that this world had been created without thought of him'. His challenge is how to exist, how to 'be' in that world. The challenge manifests itself in language and light. And at the same time he uses language and light (wrought together so dramatically, climatically, in the penultimate chapter) sometimes consciously, sometimes not, to meet that challenge.

David’s existence dangles in the boundary between the initially alien English world of the Lower East Side streets, and the familiar Yiddish world of home and his mother. She has a taught rope linking her back to Austria and soon dismisses New York, 'one grapples this land at first closer to one’s self than it’s worth.' Initially David clings as close as he can to her. She’s safety and something he knows intimately – he photographs every tiny beautiful detail with words in his mind as she goes about her chores in the kitchen – as compared to the wild unknown city outside where, when he gets lost, people don’t understand him as he tries to say the name of his street. He wants time to stand still. He saves the old paper days from a calendar. But that connection has to be broken. Not only because she’s his mother, but because unlike her he’s not tethered to their homeland. He was too young when they left to remember it.

Through his encounters with other people – the father who rejects him, Luther who competes for his mother’s attention, Bertha who takes him to the 'wilderness of man’s work' that’s the Metropolitan museum, Leo who is, in David’s eyes, the epitome of un-tethered ('There was no end to Leo’s blessings – no father, almost no mother, skates,' so he belongs to a 'rarer, bolder, carefree world') David is exposed to the humanity of the city, 'on feet, on crutches, in carts and cars', and navigates it. He starts to name streets. 'The Chinese laundry near the corner of Tenth Street and Avenue C'. [Aha, the weight of names again].

But he has an acute imagination so this navigation and exposure are inevitably treacherous. It’s an imagination that can make a leap from a window shade spring to an image, in his mind, of Puss in Boots bounding over rooftops then exploding after the mouse Puss has consumed transforms into an ogre. It’s an imagination that, more dangerously, turns his feelings about his mother into an exaggerated truth ('she’s dead!')– a truth fed by the fragments of her love story that he had been able to understand (the other fragments having been spoken by Bertha and Genya in Polish). His imagination causes the cowardice he battles against. And his imagination also means that the 'humanity' of the city is not enough for him. He can see beyond it and knows that there’s something bigger than it. Places, experiences and objects become hooks that he grasps and loads with meaning along the way to defining himself: cellar, picture, coal and finally rail.

When we’re first exposed to David’s mind he’s 'regarding the bright brass faucets that gleamed so far away.' He’s already yearning after bright lights. Bright, gleaming light is a challenge, a threat, and something he has to attain to overcome its threat. 'David often dreamed of his father’s footsteps booming on the stairs, of the glistening door-knob turning, and of himself clutching at knives he couldn’t lift from the table.' Getting to light is key to his survival. He’s transfixed by the fire created by boys burning a doll in the street outside his house, by the 'shadowy lamplighter' going about his work, by the hypnotic brilliance of a shaft of sunlight on East River. Sometimes, he thinks light is God. But it’s more than that. It’s peace, liberation, and the transcendence ultimately enabled by his creative/destructive imagination. Of the story he heard his mother telling Bertha, he thinks, 'all one had to do was to imagine that it wasn’t there, just as the cellar in one’s house could be conjured away if there were a bright yard between the hallway and the cellar-stairs. One needed only a bright yard. At times David almost believed he had found that brightness.' Or climbing onto the rooftop, 'he had only to conquer his cowardice, and that solitude and that radiance were his.' Once there, 'Gee! Alone…Ain’t so scared.' Then by the end of the novel, when he is driven like a crazed animal from his house, his senses frenzied by fears of his father’s violence, of incomprehensible religion and of the dizzying power of his imagination,

'…Only the steely glitter on the
tracks was in his eyes, fixed there like
a brand, drawing him with cables as
tough as steel.'

Light and language converge as he gives himself a dazzling electric shock and the city suddenly notices him, crowding round and talking in multiple tongues that are interwoven with the isolated lyricism of David’s unconscious experience. When he opens his eyes, 'behind, between them and around them, like a solid wall, the ever-encroaching bodies, voices, faces at all heights, gestures at all heights, all converging upon him, craning, peering, haranguing, pointing him out, discussing him.' He exists, but as what?

Is the light he found an ultimate truth, so he can finally 'be'? Or is it a blinding white-out, an empty tragedy? It’s both (and might as well be called Sleep).

Great Gatsby, Scot FitzGerald (only tangentially go into the New York city elements here, I got a bit waylaid on other things):

Jay Gatsby’s world is a kaleidoscopic one – a world of enticing impressions that are out of reach and transient. It’s a world shocked with echoes of Segismundo’s lament from La Vida es Sueño: 'que toda la vida es sueño / y los sueños, sueños son' (that all of life is a dream, and dreams themselves are just dreams). Yet here, even the dreams are dead, in Gatsby’s case the ultimate dream of love: as Tom starts dismantling Gatsby before Daisy’s eyes by disclosing his illicit business deals, Gatsby tries desperately to defend himself but gives up, 'and only the dead dream fought on as the afternoon skipped away, trying to touch what was no longer tangible, struggling unhappily, undespairingly, toward that lost voice across the room.'

I’ve pre-empted myself – first I was going to describe how dreams dominate on various levels and then mention that the dreams themselves are dead, but hey….here are those levels anyway:

There’s Gatsby himself, from so early on in his life an invented person, a dream of who he wants to be, chasing an elusive green light.

There’s Nick the totally unreliable narrator, a perfect conveyor of dreams who occupies a place amidst and within his characters, like air, or 'within and without' as he describes it, all the while trying to deny being a part of them. He is as unauthentic as they are, and all we can do is laugh at his dishonesty when he says things like, 'I am one of the few honest people that I have ever known', or of Gatsby, 'I disapproved of him from beginning to end.'

Then there are Gatsby’s guests, the cast of amorphous characters who are drawn to him, 'foul dust' [that] 'floated in the wake of his dreams', only to vanish into the shadows like so many ghosts when he closes up the house, leaving tiny pathetic tremors of their presence in the form of a telephone call inquiring after left-behind tennis shoes, or of a car pulling up at Gatsby’s front door, seeing the party is over, then pulling away again.

The characters live in a bubble, insulating themselves from an outside 'real' (?!) world that they both exploit and feel threatened by. Fitzgerald gives us glimpses outside the bubble from time to time, whether through Tom’s reference to Goddard’s 'The Rise of the Colored Empires' followed by Daisy’s whisper 'We’ve got to beat them down,' as she winks 'ferociously toward the fervent sun', through Nick mentioning that near the Yale Club 'There were generally a few rioters around, but they never came into the library, so it was a good place to work', or through this fleeting, vivid comment on class, 'There was a machine in the kitchen which could extract the juice of two hundred oranges in half an hour if a little button was pressed two hundred times by a butler’s thumb.'

Yet how come, despite all the melancholy emptiness in this bubble, the book is so vital and full? The thing that endures through all the ephemeral dreams is the story itself. Fitzgerald the author achieves that by masterfully manipulating his unreliable narrator Nick. He stands just behind Nick, makes him have that 'intense personal interest' in Gatsby which is the only way this story can be told, and occasionally steps forward to spell his message out:

‘A stout, middle-aged man, with enormous owl-eyed spectacles, was sitting somewhat drunk on the edge of a great table, staring with unsteady concentration at the shelves of books. As we entered he wheeled excitedly around and examined Jordan from head to foot.
“What do you think?” he demanded impetuously.
“About what?”
He waved his hand toward the book-shelves.
“About that. As a matter of fact you needn’t bother to ascertain. I ascertained. They’re real.”
“The books?”
He nodded
“Absolutely real – have pages and everything…See!...It’s a bona-fide piece of printed matter.”’

It can’t be a coincidence that owl-eyes is the only party-guest (other than Nick) who appears at Gatsby’s funeral.

With language, FitzGerald turns a cloud of colliding dreams into something as solid, enduring and real as his novel.

Last Exit to Brooklyn, Hugh Selby

Selby uses a fluid narrator, rushing through one character, then a group of characters, then another character, to take the reader into the eyes of lots of hurricanes. Each of the individuals in the book is at the core of a vortex/hurricane, the world of the city swirling around them – at the same time each one is part of that hurricane for others. The city itself is like a hurricane too, spinning and drawing everyone in to it without a hope of escape, and yet it has no (real) centre, so all that people are spinning around is each other. Selby captures this experience so well, so intensely, because he’s zoomed in on a corner of the city – the world of these people, in this part of it: if he had tried to do that for the whole of New York (like Bonfire) the impact would have been far less powerful.

Selby’s characters are trapped. They are trapped in the city, trapped in their own experiences of the city, and all of them will ultimately be suffocated. Each character brings about his or her own destruction. They try to escape the loneliness at the eye of the hurricane by entering into its course, like moths to flames. And at the same time their destruction is brought on them by others, by the 'crowd' that swirls about them, within which they struggle to assert their identity (their only hope of identity) – clinging to a group that sets itself up in opposition to another because confrontation is the only way to exist, or clinging to objects of love and desire – and yet which is ultimately ruthlessly oblivious to them, able to destroy and then walk away laughing, wiping its hands of the blood, able to turn its back and ignore, ignore totally, as is captured in the last lines of the book…'Abraham slept.'

The fluid narrator means Selby can crack urban life open. He enters minds and apartments, zooms in on street corners and parking lots, spills violence in forensic, totally unemotional detail ('…the ragged flash of the cut cheek flapped against the bloodied teeth and a skull was opened with a club…'), lays out bare the destruction left in the hurricane’s wake. The reader is as complicit as the characters, discarding one and moving on to the next…left confronted with the feeling of having no feeling (like at the centre of a hurricane)? And there's Selby's implicit social message - 'so, you're in this too. Is this the city you want it to be? If not, are you going to go about changing it?'

Bright Lights, Big City, Jay McInerney

'You will have to learn everything all over again,' says 'you' the narrator at the end of the novel, and that seems to sum up the process of erasing, and of learning then unlearning that runs through Bright Lights Big City.

The narrator’s driven to 'belong' / desperate to belong, yet the world he tries to belong to unravels him, and is permanently unraveled itself.

The unraveling plays out against the backdrop of the city: he’s really precise about Street-names and locations as if clinging to solid reference points – by locating himself on the map he’s trying to make his existence more rooted and real. Yet the atmosphere of the city echoes his actual disorientation…descriptions like 'You cross under the rusting stanchions of the old elevated highway and walk out to the pier…' which has 'holes through which you can see the black, fetid water underneath…You watch the solemn progress of a garbage barge wreathed in a cloud of screaming gulls, heading out to sea. Here you are again. All messed up and no place to go.'

McInerney's descriptions of the city show the overlapping layers of old and new, and of real, unreal and sensationalized; the processes and people that keep the city functioning (garbage barges etc, fleeting acknowledgment of people whose lives the narrator brushes e.g. Lucio the elevator operator who with a 'week’s training could probably take over your job'); and the 'groups' that people use to define themselves through ('I’m one of them') or against ('I’m not one of them'). 'Sometimes you feel like the only man in the city without group affiliation' he says when a group of Rastafarians gets into his subway carriage. He wonders why 'all the coffee shops in the city are run by Greeks', why 'all the vegetables in the city are sold by Koreans.' Self-absorbed, the narrator can’t take us any closer than that to people who aren’t part of his immediate world…but he does make a point of acknowledging them, as if to say here’s my (‘your’) story, it’s just one of millions.


After a few weekends out of Manhattan (and, not surprisingly, returning to find it just the same and indifferent to my return) – in Puerto Rico, sailing with P in Maryland, and at S’s wedding in Philadelphia - I have had a weekend here, involving lots of films. 24 City on Thursday with C, which gently bears testimony through a mix of documentary and fiction (can you bear testimony with fiction? I believe so) to a changing community of workers in Chengdu as their factory is knocked down to make way for a swanky new housing development. One of the character's descriptions that stood out for me was a student who decided to try out being a factory worker. He said, "So off I went, in my uniform, carrying a lunchbox with a spoon rattling inside it." He didn't last long before he couldn't bear the monotony of the task he was given, and decided to go back to his studies. Easier for some than others.

On Friday, a rather comical showing of WovenWays with RB. The substance of the film isn’t comical – it’s about the ways that uranium mining is impacting the native indigenous Navajo community in New Mexico. But the context was. It was shown at the Community Church on East 35th Street, to an audience of about 8 or 9, us included. It took about half an hour to get the DVD and projector connected properly, after some politely hesitant technological suggestions from audience members, then once running, the film periodically stalled for a few seconds. Then yesterday, two Human Rights Watch film festival films. First, the fabulous “The Reckoning” that tells the story of the International Criminal Court, the cases it has taken on or is investigating regarding Uganda, Democratic Republic of Congo, Colombia and Darfur, and its struggle for the powerful idea of international justice as conceived at the Nuremberg trials to transcend seemingly relentless political obstacles. And finally “Crude”, about the ongoing lawsuit brought by the indigenous people of Nueva Loja in Ecuador against Chevron, for contaminating their water, land, their way of life.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

New York missive no 52 - The compost heap approach to poems; New York Women Social Entrepreneurs

In an interview in Poets and Writers magazine the poet Ann Lauterbach gives the following description of Obama, which seems to capture his qualities well – and by extension the qualities that make inspiring leaders: "I think that Obama has a certain nobility of character – and nobility is not a word one uses lightly. I’ve been reading his book Dreams From My Father, where he makes clear his struggles to become himself. But if you learn these hard lessons and don’t allow yourself to become self-pitying or bitter or paranoid, you can gain a kind of responsive detachment, clarity and courage. My advice to him is, ‘To thine own self be true’”.


Speaking of words of wisdom from poets, last week I went to one of the Writer’s Studio craft classes, with the poet RW. We were in classroom 3B at the Village Community School. High up along one wall were some big coloured paper birds nests with eggs and $ bills inside them – outside the classroom some pigeons were cooing loudly as if disgruntled to have been separated from their nests. The man sitting next to me was wearing red socks, and there was a tiny dot (a bit bright for blood) on his white shirtsleeve. About half-way through, a tiny sparrow-like lady with a makeup-caked face snuck in and crouched down in between us, trying to be quiet as she rummaged through her handbag for her notebook.

Despite these quirky distractions I caught most of the class. RW’s a small, gentle-looking woman in round glasses, which contrasted wonderfully with her feisty descriptions of her poetry-writing process. She talked about tackling a poem about a painting by “fighting” with the painting (to avoid slipping into the trap of simply describing or eulogizing it). She talked of “cannibalizing” others’ poems – in particular the ancient Greeks’, which she reads in the original Greek – of her “jacknife” poems that are “short, sharp and just a little dangerous”, and of how war emerged as a theme of her latest anthology, both war in the geopolitical sense and wars that get played out between bedroom walls.

Oh and she gave a great compost heap analogy. She’ll write a poem, or the first few drafts of a poem. Then she’ll leave it to compost for a while. Then she’ll go back, lift up the compost bin lid and see how it’s doing. If it’s not ready for a re-write, she’ll ruffle and rake the compost about, put the lid back on, and come back a few days later. No wonder it takes her on average nine years to complete an anthology. But from the poems she read at that class, it’s worth the wait. She has a refreshing disregard for the pressures of the publishing industry, which expects prominent authors to churn out a new book every few years. “All I care about is the poems,” she said with a grin.


JB and I found ourselves in the top floor of ABC Carpet and Home one evening last week, in a lushly furnished living room-type area brimming with well-turned out New York women. (They were not over-dressed but all looked like a certain amount of care and attention had gone into their smart-casual outfits). They sat on the stylishly-upholstered sofas and chairs clutching glasses of wine. Late arrivals, including us, sat on the floor on cushions. A scene from a modern-day Jane Austen novel.

The occasion was a meeting of the New York Women Social Entrepreneurs – the women speaking included Patti Carpenter, Founder of Carpenter + Co, Amy Chender, VP of Social Responsibility at ABC Home and Rebecca Kousky who at the age of 24 founded Nest, a microfinance non-profit that helps women create arts & crafts businesses. Patti described ways in which sourcing high-end textiles from indigenous women suppliers in Bolivia, Guatemala and elsewhere is a learning process on both sides. Not all of Bloomingdale’s doorstopper of a supplier's manual with questions like "location of fire escape?" applies to women working from their one-room homes, for example. Rebecca talked about the difference between a 'male', linear, business-plan oriented approach to establishing and running a business, and the 'female' approach she used when she set up her company, asking a wide group of friends and contacts for advice and support. The economic downturn, she suggested, was partly a product of too much male, not enough female, approach to doing business. How little things change...that was a point I made in an article I wrote back in 2002 on the World Conference for Sustainable Development in Johannesburg.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

New York missive no 51 - Jane Fonda, an arty stroll in Fort Greene

“We’ll see all the wrinkles from here,” said a woman sitting in the theatre’s 2nd row before 33 Variations begun, starring Jane Fonda. Mu and I had wangled affordable seats and were in the first row. We certainly did have a good view of the wrinkles. Fonda was striking on the stage but also vulnerable. Which was appropriate as she was acting a musicologist suffering from a debilitating disease which progressively worsened throughout the play, while she pursued her obsession with Beethoven’s obsession with Diabelli’s ostensibly unremarkable waltz (on which he wrote 33 variations) while his hearing and health progressively worsened too.

At the end of the play Fonda’s character comes to a conclusion, of sorts, on Beethoven's intentions with those 33 Variations. Through his persistent musical mining of that one piece he demonstrated the power of holding still. Of treasuring a single moment, or in this case a single snippet of music, and revealing the multitudes of meaning and beauty it contains. The message has resonated with moments from before and after seeing the play. When I walked through Central Park to hear Le Clézio talk, from the flank of the Museum of Natural History at West 81st across to East 86th, I’d thought about writing a full story about just that one 15-minute walk. Slowing right down. Its ingredients would include: the woman sitting with her dog beneath a tree on a hillock raised above the pathway, the evening sun spilling onto them through the leaves; the echo of my footsteps under the restored Winterdale arch (described at the bottom of this page along with lots of others); Trish Mayo and her silver tangled branches on the roof of the Met. Then on the SONYA (South of the Navy Yard Artists) studio stroll in Fort Greene, Brooklyn with W, A and SK yesterday afternoon we encountered artists who freeze moments in time, like W’s friend the potter Ragnar Naess, and Valerie Willams, who used an electron microscope to capture magnified images of sand grains and plants.

As the narrator says in Paul Auster's Ghosts (part of the New York Trilogy) that I re-read this weekend, “...the present is no less dark than the past, and its mystery is equal to anything the future might hold.”

The SONYA stroll was as interesting for the intriguing glimpses into Fort Greene indoor spaces as it was for the art in them. There was Ragnar’s house on Hall Street. The whole of the downstairs is his studio, lit when we were there by white spring light that entered through a large window at one end of the room and that rubbed the edges of clay sculptures, paint tubes, wooden work-surfaces, a clock with a different bird for each number and a black cat who wove in and out of it all. The window opened onto a tangled garden that was almost fluorescent. There was 112 Washington Avenue, a rickety four-storey house crammed with artists’ studios where we encountered a slobbering Saint Bernard and where the artistic highlight was the fabulous Haitian-American painter Francks Décéus. Of course the studios with closed doors but chinks in them were more interesting than those we could wander freely into, offering up glimpses of a carpenter at work, or a dormant grey and green painted canvass. There was Brooklyn Masonic Temple. One of the stroll studios was on the third floor of this intimidating building. We were escorted up in a creaky wooden elevator. The half-moon dial marking where the elevator had reached wasn’t working on the ground floor, but was on the third where we disembarked. We were pointed left to Katie Elevitch's studio. She was sitting on a stool in the middle of a morass of chaotic paintings, guitar in hand, mane of red hair hanging over her face and accompanied on the piano by a skinny suited man with a handlebar moustache. We had little choice but to take up her offer to sit on a springy sofa and be entertained with a song involving a mattress, a catamaran, and, when the lyrics dwindled, a rendition of the yoga chant om mani padme hum.

We wound up in Bati, a new Ethiopian restaurant on Fulton Street. There we feasted on meat stews slopped up un-dextrously in springy bread, washed down with white wine.


Soon after I moved into 211 West 109th Street I emerged from the shower one morning to see my red wool dress spread out on the bed. I was convinced I hadn’t laid it out there. It was summer and there was no way I was planning to wear it. I was less disconcerted than I might have been. I hung it back up and told myself some female ghost had been checking out my wardrobe. There were no more surprises like that in the apartment though I did sometimes have a feeling I wasn’t alone.

After I moved back downtown, I got an email from the new occupant JA. He mentioned money I was owed back from Time Warner then added, “I found out about this grisly thing that took place here on the fifth floor of 211 W109th in 1992”, and provided this link to a news story about two murdered girls. There are only two apartments on the fifth floor that face onto the fire escape where the super climbed up and discovered the bodies, so there was a 50% chance the murders happened in my apartment and that therefore, of course, it was one of those two girls who had laid my red dress out on my bed.

A few weeks later, another email from JA: "After more internet searches I found out that the grisly murder took place in flat 5A [mine was 5B], so hopefully the ghosts will stay on that side of the wall”.

In a ridiculously privileged way I'm running the risk of cultural saturation (not that dangerous a risk). Last night went at the last minute to see David Hare performing his Berlin / Wall - wow, would whitter further were I not having to head into work. And a few weeks ago saw Jeremy Irons in Impressionism. Am I subconsciously hankering for British accents?

Thursday, April 30, 2009

New York missive no 50 - Le Clézio

Jean-Marie Le Clézio has to be the most humble Nobel-prize-winning author. Ri and I heard him last Friday, being interviewed by the New Yorker’s Adam Gopnik. He has the distance of adult wisdom but sees the world through the thrilled eyes of a child. And he has a deep sense of privilege – he’d describe, for example, seeing abuses in colonial Nigeria where his father worked when he was young – a procession of Nigerians led “like a chain gang” to build a colonial official’s swimming pool, the official overseeing them in his shorts and white socks and wide-brimmed hat – and said that while such scenes made him angry he still felt intensely privileged to have born witness to them. He’s fascinated (as you’d expect) by words. Yet in an almost mystical way. “Each word is a world by itself – each word contains a world.” I thought of this the next day when I explored Brooklyn Botanical Garden where each of the plant names contains world upon world of meaning…

Blue Atlas Cedar
Schiedecker Crabapple
Toringo Crabapple
Scarlet Oak
Chinese Fountain Bamboo
Carolina Allspiece
Saucer Magnolia
Weeping Pagoda Tree (it was)
Snow Azalea
Virginia Bluebells
Weeping Hemlock
Hybrid Oak
Narcissus Poeticus
Nodding Virgin’s Bower
Siberian Fritillary
Bosnian Pine
Interrupted Fern
Wild Bleeding-Heart
Nodding Onion
Eastern shooting star
Wild oats!

And that’s just a handful of them. Material for a multitude of stories.

Le Clézio is anti-affirmation (to the extent he can be "anti" anything!). Rather than novels presenting truths to the world he sees them as birthing questions. He talked about a humanism that isn’t human-centric, that tries to express, as far as possible from within the confines of a human mind, not only the dreams of humans but the dreams of animals and the dreams of plants as well. In the Botanical gardens I thought of all those plants dreaming away at night.

So much more to say…but rushing (comme toujours!) to a wedding in Puerto Rico. To be continued…

Just noticed on posting this that in blog-entry terms it's EWINY's golden anniversary.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

New York missive no 49 - Where Frederick Douglas landed

“There’s no room in the human rights business for pessimists. We have to be a pessimist of the intellect, but an optimist of the will,” (à la Gramsci), says Sharon Hom of Human Rights in China, in this interview.

And a very different interview which also belongs here...Irish Times has just published this article on the Writers Studio director Philip Schultz. It highlights the irony of his winning the Pulitzer last year for an anthology called "Failure" (based on the "failure" that was his father's life).


Springtime’s coming out onto the streets of New York and with it New Yorkers and tourists in their thousands are coming out onto the streets too, flouncing as-yet-un-sunned bodies of all shapes onto the Christopher Street Pier, cramming into the square by Bleeker playground to scoff overrated Magnolia cupcakes, getting brushed if they're lucky by falling white pear tree blossom (there are lots of blossoming pear trees which is funny because I don't remember them from last year - these ones don't bear pears apparently, which makes me wonder if they can really call themselves pear trees), congregating at sidewalk cafés, photographing each other in front of much-photographed New York symbols – yellow taxis, police cars, jagged skylines. This afternoon I lay for a while in a Sunday sun-daze on the pier. From there the statue of liberty looked, as I scribbled in my diary at the time, like a misshapen missile pointed at a jaunty angle to the sky. Its trajectory was destined to descend somewhere in the Gobi desert. That is to say, off whatever its target may have been.

The previous weekend I ambled further down the river in search of a quiet place to finish reading Last Exit to Brooklyn. (Accomplished, in North Park, a patch of presumably reclaimed land jutting out into the river just North of the World Trade Center site – an incongruously calm place to finish that book with its relentless riff of violence). On the way, in an echo of the Cambria play, I happened to pass the place where Frederick Douglass’ boat came in when he first arrived in New York. A plaque marking the spot is inscribed with a quote from an article he wrote in July 1848, after attending the Women’s Rights Convention in Seneca Falls: “Standing as we do on the watchtower of human freedom, we cannot be deterred from an expression of our appreciation of any movement, however humble, to improve and elevate the character and condition of any members of the human family.”

A little girl walked passed me with her Dad towards the river while I was reading the plaque. “That’s the ocean!” she said.
“No, that’s a river,” he replied.
She insisted. “No, it’s the ocean.”
“Well it connects to the ocean, but here it’s a river.”
“It is the ocean.”
I liked her persistence and her foresight.


Weekends have got pretty nocturnal recently – time for a spring-time shift to more diurnal habits, getting out sailing again, venturing on excursions outside the city. There’s been one of Sam’s epic dinner parties that ended with survivors finding themselves on a West Village bar-hop till the early hours, Ji’s Colombian fundraiser in Brooklyn, slam-poetry at Nuyorican Poets Café and last night, many deliciously sweet caipirinhas at D’s…


My bedroom window slides down to close itself unless there’s something stuck in the bottom to hold it open. So I’m using books, different ones depending on how much I want to keep the window open by. Belize Lonely Planet guide for just a little gap of air, Satanic Verses to let in more.

Tuesday, March 31, 2009

New York missive no 48 - Call it Sleep, Great Gatsby

Café frequenters coming and going like ghosts. Some chew on pencil ends, some leaf through pages, some alternate typed sentences with spoonfuls of granola. Look up from your book and the person across the room has gone. Am in Doma, the epitome of a West Village café for people writing, reading, chatting quietly, any upbeat tune followed by a classical one or something peaceful, out of respect for customers trying to think.


New York might have a reputation for ceaseless progress but I’ve been struck by how many people have nostalgia disease. An affection for things past. Not pride in the past, in the way European city inhabitants are proud of their historic monuments, those solid stepping stones of progress (here there’s no need, the evidence of progress is now, everywhere, and it doesn’t always look good). More an anti-progress sense of past. A resistance to the “achievement” that’s meant to define this city. Hence the mourning of markets that make way for high-priced apartment blocks. Hence the fond capture of surviving eccentricities through words, photos and recounted stories, keeping them alive a little bit longer.

Two recently-read New York books are filtering into my days at the moment: Henry Roth’s Call it Sleep and Fitzgerald’s Great Gatsby (don’t really need to preface Great Gatsby with “Fitzgerald’s”, but did so to be fair). Call it Sleep is infused with light – light in the form of “bright brass faucets”, the flame of a “shadowy lamplighter”, the hypnotic brilliance of a shaft of sunlight on East River, light that’s analogous to language and that the child narrator David uses to navigate his experience growing up on the Lower East Side at the turn of last century. So I’ve been noticing lights about the place more than usual. Light trickling along subway tracks before a train emerges from a tunnel. Plates of silver light lying on wet pavements after rain. Gold light catching on thousands of windows at sunset.

And then Great Gatsby for various reasons, including its playfully relentless life’s a dream message (echoing so many other life’s-a-dream-messages gone by, “que toda la vida es sueño / y los sueños, sueños son”). For example saw B for the first time in ages last Sunday. I was amused to realise that much of what I’d been feeling was the result of an over-active imagination. The dreams themselves are real though, even if transient. And even if the dreams are transient, the fiction that captures them (in Fitzgerald’s case not mine!) endures.

Mmm, well a little cynical perhaps. There are real things too!

Monday, March 30, 2009

New York missive no 47 - The Cambria

Things overheard out and about recently include “he’s a nice, normal guy, but he carries a small pocket knife” (on W11th), “es una bruja, es una pesada” (in Doma), and “if it’s illegal, I’m in” (outside Fashion Institute of Technology on W27th).


Have been thinking about productivity recently. More than ever, it seems, I’m most productive if I have a tight deadline. So the best sentences I write for my Writers Studio exercises are invariably the last-minute ones that spring up onto the page just before I leave for the class at 5.55 on a Wednesday. Or funding proposals flow so much easier when I just have a couple of hours to work on them. Maybe I should establish a new work-pattern that involves squeezing things I need/want to do into a little last-minute pocket of time where there’s no room for distractions and alternative tasks. Then all the remaining time can be filled with idleness – a place that often births pleasant surprises.


Ch and I saw a fabulous play at the Irish Arts Center last Friday night. For all the following week I was like a boa constrictor slowly digesting a big meal. Called "The Cambria", it was the story of Frederick Douglass’ sea voyage (on the Cambria) to Ireland, following the publication of his autobiography Narrative of the Life of an American Slave, for which slaveowners had put a bounty on his head. With minimal staging and just two actors playing the full cast of characters on board the ship – from holier-than-thou liberal choirmistress to sneering slaveowner, from Frederick Douglas himself to the Captain, for whom the voyage is one of moral discovery – the audience felt like it had been on board too. What theatre’s all about.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

New York missive no 46 - Paul Auster & an 80s party

On Thursday L, D and I heard Paul Auster giving the Lewis Mumford Lecture at City College’s school of architecture. He called the lecture City of Words. It was in the college’s Great Hall, which has tall stained glass windows hexagoned in delicate greens and blues lined up along its walls. I couldn’t help stealing glances away from the stage to watch the dimming light fall through them: by the end of the lecture, at 7.30ish, it was extinguished.

Light and stained glass windows aside the lecture was good, of course. Auster was a tad lazy in that he didn’t write new words for it. Instead he read old ones in the form of short extracts from his books that captured city experiences. But hey, he is a writer not a speachifier, and the extracts he read merited resuscitation. There was a magical moment as a quiet bell started ringing outside while he read descriptions of homeless people from City of Glass, as if it was his homeless characters acknowledging their presence out on the streets. He read from Moon Palace which I found scarily unfamiliar. I knew K and I had both read it when we were in Madrid but I didn’t remember it at all (omigod how many words have tumbled into my head just to vanish like in quicksand, best not to be thought about…now I realize why EF from the age of six-ish kept little notebooks she jotted thoughts in every time she finished reading something). Yet the Moon Palace extract was also familiar, in that it echoed recent thoughts - like when the narrator/Marco Fogg says “you cannot live without establishing an equilibrium between the inner and outer.” That’s the beauty of literature, an echo chamber for experience.

The extract was from when Marco is living in Central Park. While there he realizes that “once you throw your life to the winds, you will discover things you had never known before, things that cannot be learned under any other circumstances. I was half-dead from hunger, but whenever something good happened to me, I did not attribute it to chance so much as to a special state of mind.”

Well I should be writing a big funding proposal instead of this, but my head is a little fuzzy after an 80s party at SK’s that spiralled into what will no doubt be one of the parties of the year, in the unpredictable and spontaneous way that parties sometimes do. The apartment was rammed with people in ridiculous costumes dancing away, shouting quirky conversations over the music, everyone oozing a love-everyone-mood induced by no more than wine and vodka. So much for recession-gloom…or maybe it was a collective finger-up at recession-gloom.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

New York missive no 45 - Uptown moments, David Foster Wallace

Am digesting lots of sushi and a blowfish saki. JB and I just went for a meal at a Japanese restaurant in mid-town following a consultation at the UN. Very Japanese, in that at first we were led to the upper floor even though there wasn’t a single person eating there, and then to the far right-hand corner of the upper floor, presumably because we didn’t blend in with the clientele downstairs. We manoeuvred our way back down though.

So before they’re layered over with more downtown images I’ll record some of my uptown moments (not that I won’t be still be going up there sometimes!). There was the first McCain-Obama debate in the Apollo Theatre in Harlem. Its walls were draped in history in the form of photographs of jazz musicians who had played there, and the auditorium thrilled with the flush of history in the making.

There was a night of music, when Ch, Sa, L and I had planned to go to Smoke jazz bar but found it full for the first session. Instead we went (through a friend of L’s Mum), to a free Brahms concert performed by Russian musicians in an old hall somewhere in the W 70s. The violinist and pianist both had paunches and ill-fitting suits. They gave their brows dramatic mops with handkerchiefs between each movement. The pianist’s pile of hair flopped about as he swayed on his piano stool. The page-turner was a teenage boy with a prominent red polo logo on his shirt. There were quite a few fur coats, big hair-dos and smartly turned-out Russian children in the audience. Yet these visual details were just a merry accompaniment to the music itself, deep and dreamy and oh such a relaxing way to spend the first part of a Saturday night. That was followed by wine at the French Roast on the corner near there (I had thought the one on 6th Ave and 11th was the only one, so was disappointed to discover it’s not unique). Sa then headed home to his Thai lover and Ch headed home to sleep as she was running a half-marathon next day, and L and I went back to Smoke to catch the last set. It was a celebration of the drummer Jimmy Cobb’s 80th birthday. He played, and played good - after all he was the drummer on most of the Miles Davis albums - but this was clearly the third and final set. At midnight on the dot he and the band laid down their drumsticks and trumpets and made a beeline for the bar.

Other uptown things...English conversation classes with mother tongue Spanish-speakers from Dominican Republic, Ecuador and Mexico in Washington Heights (an excuse for me to practice Spanish as much as help their English)…a fascinating talk at New York Public Library’s Countee Cullen branch on Jacob Lawrence’s Migration series…and a stunning walk one morning down from 145th, after turning up at the swimming pool in Riverbank State Park to find it closed (oh where oh where are the good big open and affordable Manhattan swimming pools?!). The sun was just rising as I walked through Harlem, gently kissing quiet streets awake.


I've come across several examples of privatization-of-public functions gone crazy recently. Which is a little ironic in the midst of a financial crisis in which companies are being bailed out and bought out by governments all over the place, though both are symptoms of blind faith in the market. For example in Dan Baum’s new book about New Orleans he apparently describes how “the Superdome turns into a Dantean circle of hell. The coroner can’t figure out why no one is bringing in bodies. Soldiers aren’t allowed to pick them up; neither are state police. Eventually an outside contractor arrives, and the coroner says bitterly: “Let me see if I’ve got this straight. Dead people rot on the streets of New Orleans for a week and a half so the feds can sign a private contract.” Or there’s the court case underway at the moment in Pennsylvania. Two judges have pleaded guilty to taking over $2.6 million in kickbacks from two private youth detention centers in return for sending teenagers there - some of them for minor, first-time offenses. Apparently one of the judges sentenced over 5,000 juveniles since the kickback scheme started in 2003. Everyday I’m immersed in cases of business behaving badly. It’s easy to become a bit numbed by them, to let my sense of outrage get worn down at the edges, until a case like that electroshocks it back to life again.


A strange, intense appreciation has come over me, naff as that may sound. An overwhelming sense of privilege and being awed by the tiniest things.

Is it because Spring’s coming? (Albeit in fits and starts via the occasional disruptive snowstorm, like last weekend's which is now melting in heavy splashes from scaffolding and windowsills).

Is it because of the crisis-recession-downturn-or-whatever-we-like-or-dare-to-call-it? Out for dinner with PK the other night we got into talking about how "it" is making us reassess priorities and value the things we have. Which of course was easy for us to say, who still have jobs, and who had just emerged from hearing Jesseye Norman speaking at Carnegie Hall (she’s as charismatic a talker as she is singer, her conversation sparkling with vivid anecdotes). I doubt most people who have lost their jobs, houses, healthcare, pensions, or all of those are savouring a reassessment of priorities, they’re in a dark place living day to day.

The downturn has also birthed a new breed of guilt-quickly-transformed-to justification for spending. Several times recently I’ve heard myself and others rationalizing carrying on as usual, deciding to eat out, have an extra glass of wine rather than spending more cautiously and saving, either on the basis that “we may as well enjoy it while it lasts”, or on the basis that doing so will support the economy, keeping small businesses and shops alive.

But back to the intense appreciation feeling. It was echoed in a speech I read this morning over coffee (back at Mojo’s again, yay!) – David Foster Wallace’s 2005 Kenyon Commencement Address. I’m no longer surprised in this city when I find echoes and reflections between things I see, hear and read: the frequency of interactions means it’s inevitable there’ll be connections between some of them. And alertness to connections is a kind of survival strategy too, weaving patterns and logic through what could seem disconnected sequences of events.

“Learning how to think really means learning how to exercise some control over how and what you think. It means being conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to and to choose how you construct meaning from experience,” Wallace says. And, “The really important kind of freedom involves attention and awareness…if you really learn how to pay attention…It will actually be within your power to experience a crowded, hot, slow, consumer-hell type situation [he had just described a stressful trip to the supermarket in cinematic detail] as not only meaningful, but sacred, on fire with the same force that made the stars: love, fellowship, the mystical oneness of all things deep down. Not that that mystical stuff is necessarily true. The only thing that’s capital T-True is that you get to decide how you’re gonna try to see it.” (His "try" there a tiny but such a loaded word). The speech throws open window upon window upon window of possibilities. I guess you could sum his message up as, "it's all in the attitude." But in the most profound and liberating, and challenging, of ways.