Saturday, February 21, 2009

New York missive no 44 - Word bites

Look at the length of some of these blog entries. Some of the paragraphs within them even. Long. No wonder I’m postponing a plunge into Twitter-land with its 140 character-limit on “Tweets”. Not that I’m adverse to short sentences. In fact I love them. I just feel that channeling all our communication through sound-bitey bursts can’t but fragment our already fragmented thought-processes. Give me a lengthy New Yorker article any-day. Oh and the time to read it in please. Of course, even though I haven’t taken the plunge Twitter has started lapping at the edges of my world, and before long might just suck me in. There’s a merging of medium / media going on. Just now I was reading last week’s Sunday New York Times magazine, still sitting bereft as Sunday supplements often do, on my kitchen table. One of the front pieces was called “Being There – The subtle art of the Facebook update.” And then over the page was “A successful failure – How an image went from e-card to Twitter icon.” No doubt that article in turn provoked a flurry of Twitters.

Am sitting in an 80% packed up apartment. The remaining not-quite-throw-away-able nor packable 20% of random odds and ends has prompted procrastination…and will no doubt still be there till right at the last minute tomorrow when it gets stuffed together in a random odds and ends box. I’m moving back to West Village. It didn’t take long for downtown to lure me back.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

New York missive no 43 - Windy walk, dogs, and inspiring people

Two sensations from last Thursday. In the evening, putting back on the same warm socks I’d just worn for a work-out at the gym. Should have been disgusting but was strangely comforting. And in the morning, a wonderfully frantic winter wind that blew me about on a walk down the Hudson to work – or at least, from 109th to 50th, before I had to succumb to the subway. The water was whipped up choppy, the boats on the 79th street pier bobbed like horses at their bits and there weren’t many people around except for dedicated joggers and walkers of happy dogs. I arrived at work with witch-like hair.


There were a lot of posh dogs posing about this week on the stretch of Seventh Avenue just North of the office. There was a perfectly clipped Bedlington, a proud Briard oblivious to admiring crowds and svelte greyhounds rippling with pedigree. They looked superior to the people milling around them in their clumpy winter coats. I later realized that the reason for this canine conglomeration was Westminster dog show (the winner: a Sussex Spaniel called Stump).

People so love dogs in this city, and while I used to find that bizarre for an island with so little green space for them to run about in, I’ve come to think it’s precisely because of the lack of space that people love their dogs. They re-connect their owners with nature – giving them a reason to get out and find it, or just rubbing it in their faces with a shake of a shaggy head and a wet lick, with the thump of tails and paws on a wooden floor. That love, of course, can lead to (usually) harmlessly irrational behaviour. T and A, who hosted S’s birthday party last weekend in their expansive Chelsea apartment (too expansive in my view, because however big the party people always feel conscious of saggy pockets of empty space floating around them), spend more on conditioner for the fur of their proportionately expansive, immaculate Rottweiler as they do for their own hair. TE, at a KBG Bar reading by a quartet of Writer’s Studio teachers, read her poignant and hilarious story about a man’s love for his Black Labrador “Bird”. And Ch described how the other day running in Central Park she almost stumbled over a famous elderly actor, as he scooped up his dog’s turd. Their eyes met briefly, they smiled, and she jogged on (of course I’ve forgotten the actor’s name, me being so crap with famous people’s names…pun kind of intended).

[Added later: Ah, just remembered, not an actor but a musician, it was Lou Reed. Re-christened Poo Reed by Ch].


A sense of priority totally recalibrated this week by the stories of four inspiring people. One of the 50 people killed in the Buffalo aeroplane crash on Thursday was Alison des Forges, an advocate for justice for the Rwanda genocide. As Ken Roth says in Human Rights Watch’s tribute to her, "She was truly wonderful, the epitome of the human rights activist - principled, dispassionate, committed to the truth and to using that truth to protect ordinary people.” Journalist Michael Kavanagh says in his Slate article on des Forges: "The most common criticism of Alison's work, particularly on Rwanda, is that it sometimes failed to take into account the unique political and security needs of a country just emerging from conflict. The criticism is not unfounded, but it misses the point. The job of a human rights worker is not the same as that of a politician who needs to make unenviable compromises between security and justice. A human rights worker is in the business of giving voice to the voiceless, uncovering injustice, and advocating for its redress. Alison Des Forges—brilliant, indefatigable, and, above all, passionate [him and Ken Roth must have been talking re different kinds of passion...] —reveled in this."

Then today in the gym I caught by chance a documentary on Tommie Smith and John Carlos, the two African American athletes who gave the black power salute from the podium when they won the gold and bronze 200m medal at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico. On their return to the US they received a torrent of death threats and it’s only relatively recently that their bravery has been recognised. The documentary wove accounts of the build-up to their salute, with its aftermath, with their moving return to the stadium in Mexico last year.

And just now I’ve posted on our website an article about Ma Jun, the Chinese environmentalist who persistently, patiently and effectively exposes polluting companies in China and pushes them to clean up their act.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

New York missive no 42 - extraordinary rendition

Mmmm, shouldn't have spoken too soon about civil liberties victories. The new administration's attitude to this case involving rendition flights by the Boeing unit Jeppesen doesn't bode well.

Saturday, February 7, 2009

New York missive no 41 - Mind, bodies & the city

Minds, bodies and the city.

Perhaps it’s stimulated by recession and recession-fears but it seems there’s more craziness in New York these days. So much so the boundaries between craziness and sanity are blurring. The man sitting next to me on the 1-train shouting, pointing, laughing at himself and the world and emitting fragments of phrases like “And wipe my boots," “Zimbabwe,” “You are him?” “Ha-ha!” may have as much sense and truth in him as I or our fellow passengers – who cast quick glances from time to time then buried themselves back in books and iPods. And the scene of a man in an electric wheelchair gliding slow and steady round the edge of a frozen lake in the quiet North West corner of Central Park with “Greensleeves” blaring from his transistor radio is as beautiful as it’s bizarre.

And then there’s the elderly man on the steps to the uptown platform at 14th Street station. He had a shopping trolley stuffed with paper Duane Reed bags, which in turn were stuffed with stuff. And he had more stuffed paper Duane Reed bags gathered around him. One of them tipped over. Its contents – bits of scrunched up paper, unidentifiable objects – tumbled down the steps. I went over to pick some of the stuff up. “Oh Nooooo!” he shouted, pointing an accusing arm at me, and everyone on the platform looked on. “No No! Don’t you help me. Don’t!” So I didn’t. Back on the platform someone said he too had tried to help and got the same reaction. It happened again. As steps-man bent down to pick up his things another of the bags tipped and more contents tumbled. Again, someone tried to help (yes whatever they say about this city people do look out for each other, after they’ve looked out for themselves). Again he shouted “No! No No!” Louder this time. And so it went on, more stuff tumbling, more offers to help, louder and louder rejections.

Is he a 21st century Bartleby? A couple of days previously I’d been at a New School class on literary New York (how very New York) where we’d been discussing Melville’s “Bartleby, the Scrivener”. Bartleby turns up at the narrator’s law chambers one day and starts work as a scrivener, copying legal documents. He complies with the copying but whenever he’s asked to do anything else says, “I’d prefer not to.” Eventually he “prefers not to” do the copying as well, yet somehow the narrator’s unable to get him to leave, so moves himself instead. Bartleby’s preferring not to is many things. One is simple resistance. Unlike the narrator, the other scriveners and the teeming inhabitants beyond the boundaries of Melville's tale Bartleby refuses to let the city subsume him. Keeps his identity erosion-free. Steps-man is a resistor too. But I guess the question is, to be a resistor do you have to be a victim first?

Georg Simmel’s “The Metropolis and Mental Life” also came up in that class. Simmel writes about how minds respond to the city’s bombardment of fleeting external impressions. It made me think about how my kidneys are responding too. To explain…during the past few weeks something’s been up with them, which has led to a flurry of interaction with the US health system in search of a diagnosis (about which maybe more later). If I were to self-diagnose though, my grumbling kidneys might be symptoms of a saturated consciousness – all the more apt as kidneys receive and deal with stuff from outside. If that is one of the causes what’s the cure? One would be to block out external impressions, or at least receive them selectively. Taken to an extreme, the “prefer not to” option. But I’m not sure my nature would approve of that, no doubt provoking a different kind of rebellion. Another would be to expand. To somehow increase the space I have to contain them all. But that could be a futile and ultimately dangerous endeavour (I’d be like one of those endlessly inflatable empresses fed milk through a tube). Another would be to go sit on a beach for a bit and watch the sea (which appeals of course, and indeed can be done, but is more of a quick-fix bail-out than a sustainable solution). And another would be to process them. Accept them, play with them, filter them, blend them with a bit of imagination and then send them bouncing back out into the world, a little changed. That’s the cure I’ll experiment with.

That, and chancra piedra tea. When my back played up on a beach in Northern Peru a doctor came in from a nearby village, gave me a shot of morphine, told me it could be a kidney stone and that I should just consume water for a few days and get hold of some chancra piedra when I returned to Lima. So for a few weeks after that I was boiling up leaves bought for a few soles in little bags in a Lima market, straining them and drinking the brown tea. I felt better. Here in New York you can get it too, though for more than a few soles, in round tins not bags, from an online natural remedies store rather than a bustling market, and under the English and embellished name “Royal Break Stone Tea”. I've had a couple of cups so far.

Another way people react to the city is to create little islands. They can be made of anything. There are the polystyrene cups of coffee that people cling to on their way to work in the mornings as if to say “this is me, here I am still, look, I’m holding on tight.” There are relationships. For example S and A described the other day how they sometimes shut themselves off in a little world of their apartment and each other, away from everything else. He’s just lost his job of 13 years so might be finding himself in that little world too much. Oh yes and there are apartments themselves of course, but in that case someone else’s island is always better than yours. There are Sundays. And there are relationships on Sundays, captured stunningly by Tom Wolfe in “A Sunday Kind of Love” (in the way that so many New York writers capture things stunningly in their almost-unique ways; Updike, who died last week and about whom eulogies are bursting out of the pages of all New York papers and magazines, apparently thought New York would never let him be totally unique - too many distractions - hence didn't stay here long).

Wolfe starts by describing a young couple kissing on a Thursday morning in a subway station while crowds swarm by:

“All the faces come popping in clots out of the Seventh Avenue local, past the King Size Ice Cream machine, and the turnstiles start whacking away as if the world were breaking up on the reefs. Four steps past the turnstiles everybody is already backed up haunch to paunch for the climb up the ramp and the stairs to the surface, a great funnel of flesh, wool, felt, leather, rubber and streaming alumicron, with the blood squeezing through everybody’s old sclerotic arteries in hopped-up spurts from too much coffee and the effort of surfacing from the subway at the rush hour. Yet there on the landing are a boy and a girl, both about eighteen, in one of those utter, My Sin, backbreaking embraces.”

And then, “The vision of love at rush hour cannot strike anyone exactly as romance. It is a feat, like a fat man crossing the English Channel in a barrel. It is an earnest accomplishment against the tide…Which explains why the real thing in New York is, as it says in the song, a Sunday kind of love.”

He describes "George G" and "Anne A"’s Sunday kind of love. “George would be sitting at this rickety little table with an oil-cloth over it. How he goes on about it! The place was grimy. You couldn’t keep the soot out. The place was beautiful. Anne is at the stove making coffee. The smell of the coffee being made, just the smell…already he is turned on. She had on a great terrycloth bathrobe with a sash belt. The way she moved around inside the bathrobe with the sun shining in the window always got him. It was the atmosphere of the thing. There she was, moving around in that great fluffy bathrobe with the sun hitting her hair, and they had all the time in the world. There wasn’t even one flatulent truck horn out on Eighth Avenue. Nobody was clobbering their way down the stairs in high heels out in the hall at 10 minutes to 9.”

Oh wow. The fabulous rhythm of words.