Tuesday, November 30, 2010

New York missive no 84 - Wollman rink, 34th St station & a London walk

In the early morning light the long shadows of skaters on the Wollman rink in Central Park slice like windmill sails. An analogy of life is being skated out. There are the skaters who dance well and effortlessly, weaving with ease among the rest. Others stride out but stumble clumsily, others cling to the edge and still others clutch a partner for support. All of them carve a trail that will disappear soon after they leave the rink.


Moment of realization at 34th Street subway station recently. The reason why New Yorkers move so fast isn’t always because they are in a hurry to get somewhere, but that they want to create some space between themselves and the next person. A perpetual and futile instinct to escape the crowds.


In London a couple of weeks ago I walked from Waterloo station up to our office on Charlotte Street, on the morning of our trustee meeting. I had a tingling tiredness because JNH, discombobulated with jetlag, had been awake till 5am so I’d had just a couple of hours sleep. It was strange seeing such an utterly familiar walk through outsider's eyes.

By the steps leading down from the station to Shell Centre, a man dressed in orange with a collection bucket stood next to a sign saying “Orange for Orangutan Day”.

I passed through the art installation that hardly feels like one – wall of feintly-outlined white neon bricks – in the approach to Momi and the Archduke pub.

I admired Mandela’s head at the top of the steps by the Festival Hall.

I entered the Pain Quotidien – like the other brand memes I mentioned in missive no. 83 Pain Quotidiens are everywhere now – to buy a “walnut and raisin flute” of bread to munch on my way over the bridge. It cost £1.50. I paid with a £2 coin and felt its heft compared to US currency.

I walked over Hungerford pedestrian bridge, one drop in a steady stream of people heading northwards like me, against a trickle of people heading south, with the occasional solitary seagull passing overhead.

I saw a splash of gerberas by the flower stall next to Embankment station.
I passed Fitness First gym. Through the gaps where the laminated commercials advertising the kind of body you could have had peeled off the windows I saw the exerting real bodies behind, not far off those promised bodies actually.
I smelt Burger King as I went through Charing Cross station.

I smiled at the statue of Oscar-Wilde with his wild hair lying down and the inscription at his feet, “We are all in the gutter but some of us are looking at the stars.”

I passed the Crypt, then the Chandos, thinking I’m looking forward to drinking again, having a pint.

I looked up at the theatre where Art was on for so long and now there’s a show with Bill Bailey.

I skimmed the edge of Gerrard Street in Chinatown where P was scared of the dragon at my 10th birthday.

I passed the Curzon on Shafesbury Avenue, then up Frith street which felt fresh it always does in the early mornings, breathing easy after another night of crowded activity: Balans, Café Italia, Ronnie Scotts, Barra Fino, Arbutus, spreading at the end into Soho Square.

I dodged through the heaving traffic of Oxford Street (quick as possible) to Rathbone Place that leads straight up to the red-brick office, where the gingko tree outside faithfully marked the season with its bright yellow leaves.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

New York missive no 83 - Dragonflies, Rally to Restore Sanity, NYC marathon

The fact that we move the clocks an hour twice a year is reassuring. It shows that time doesn’t control us completely.


There are brand-memes that suddenly go into multiplying overdrive it seems, achieving ubiquity. At the moment in New York those are Snapple, Boars Head, Stieg Larsson. The shop and subway-vendor fridges are stuffed with Snapple drinks, Boar’s Head meat and cheese is on display in all the delis and at least one passenger in each subway carriage is clutching a Stieg Larsson book…The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo… The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets’ Nest…


JNH harmed something for the first time the other day. It didn’t matter much, but I felt it. He has a mobile of felt dragonflies hanging above his crib. From the kitchen I heard a rustling and crunching sound, and went in to his room to see he’d stretched up and grabbed hold of one of the dragonflies. The whole mobile was a tangle. The round frame was at a jaunty angle, the threads were all twisted and the dragonflies all over the place. The green one had lost two wings.


C, JNH and I went on a 5 hour bus journey last weekend to join a latte-sipping rabble rallying to restore sanity in the Mall in Washington DC. It was worth it for the evening walk to the White House, the Washington and Lincoln Memorials etc. in fading October sunlight after we arrived, and for the fun and relieved atmosphere among the 200,000ish (Stephen Colbert put it at 6 billion) gathered the next day, with signs saying things like Floridans Against Rational Thought, This is a Sign, Grumpy Old People, Death to Extremists, I’m with Stupid. Though the feeling I’d had before we went – that, while funny, the fact that so many people including us saw a rally organized by two comedians as the only rally worth traveling for this year, reflects a seriously sorry state of affairs.

H having moved back to London, and the Quincy hotel where I’d stayed before being booked up, we found ourselves somehow staying at the ridiculously big and wannabe-posh Omni Shoreham hotel , one subway stop up from Dupont Circle. It’s the kind of place where guests feel like profit-fodder, buying a $3 coffee here, paying a debit card fee there and feeling disproportionately subversive when tipping an underpaid porter.


Opposite me on the N train on the way back from Brooklyn on Friday, an elderly man from Malta who was here for today’s Marathon got talking to the local man sitting next to him. The former was on his way to a Maltese social club in Astoria – he had the address written down on a little card – the latter was on his way back to his home near Steinway street, where, he described, Egyptian and Serbian communities rub shoulders. “There’s a bit of everything round there,” he said, “I didn’t know about the Maltese social club though.” Maltese guy asked about the Marathon route and whether the boroughs were island or mainland. His neighbor explained slowly, patiently a few times, and Maltese guy repeated after him. “So…Staten Island – island; Brooklyn And Queens, part of Long Island, island; Manhattan – island; and the Bronx, mainland! I get it, thank you.” He looked delighted. I kept an eye out for him today as JNH and I watched some of the 45,000 runners approach the daunting climb of the Queensborough Bridge, but didn’t see him. From his wiry but strong-looking form I imagine he’d already sped right ahead.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

New York missive no 82 - Looking up, a big bee, stealing, Anna Quindlan on motherhood

I passed a man on the corner of 6th Ave and 31st street, gazing up at a point in the sky a couple of blocks South. Then I realized that he wasn’t gazing up at the sky. (Of course not. Who looks at the sky in Manhattan?). He was looking up a towering new block of apartments. A Manhattan experience, gazing upwards, dreaming you can be higher. When you reach the top of one of those buildings though, don’t you feel a bit removed from the life going on so far below?


At the International Diamond Conference on Thursday Peter Singer said that stealing is a crime unless, for example, you’re stealing millions in oil profits from Angola or Equatorial Guinea. By chance in the subway on my way home I overheard a Polish guy say to the woman sitting next to him, “In America if you steal a loaf of bread you’re a thief. If you’re a corporation stealing a few hundred thousand here and there you get away with it. You can pay for the lawyers to get you off the hook.”


A huge bee careened into our living room a few weeks ago, black and bigger than a hornet. It crashed drunkenly into walls and the ceiling then the bars of a hanging metal lamp. C was trying to hit it with a rolled magazine and for some reason my fear was more intense than with any normal bee. This one was huge. And the presence of little J on the floor nearby further jangled my nerves. Each time C thwacked and hit the metal but missed the bee I felt its anger grow and imagined a deadly sting. Then it committed suicide. It flew into the glass bowl lamp on the kitchen ceiling and whirled there buzzing, buzzing until frazzled it lay still. You could see the black shape up through the clouded glass, a smudge. Yesterday I happened to look up at the lamp and it was gone. C told me he’d taken it out when he changed the bulb. I felt sad, like I’d missed something, the chance to see that great bee right up close and not be afraid.


In this interview with Charlie Rose, the journalist Anna Qindlan says of her youth, “I wasn’t sure if I wanted to have kids, which shows how much I know.”
“Because…?” asks Charlie Rose.
“Because they’ve taught me about ninety percent of what I know that’s worth knowing.”
After these five months of being a mother I know just what she means.


I copied a friend's idea and took a series of photos on my way into work to post on Facebook. The process of taking the pictures made me notice so much more than usual, of course. So now on my journey in I try to remember to photograph the things I see, even if only in my mind.

A woman looks out over midtown.

Monday, October 11, 2010

New York missive no 80 - Underneath "Undercover boss"

I’ve watched three episodes of the CBS TV series “Undercover boss”. No more! At first it seems a good idea. CEO gets to work undercover in different roles throughout his company to experience what his/her employees have to do and is humbled in the process – by his/her own ineptitude (which makes for good humor) and the tough work for little pay that the employees do (which makes for good pathos). Every CEO should be required to do that, just not for a reality TV show.

I've seen the episodes in which the CEOs of 1-800 flowers, Choice Hotels and Great Wolf Lodge indoor waterpark company go through the process. By the second, it became apparent that the show is completely formulaic. (Ok, the fact an American reality show is formulaic really shouldn’t come as a surprise). Boss gets to work alongside selected employees who are all hard-working, excellent at their jobs and struggling to realize their dreams – which might be putting their kids through college, getting a promotion, affording a too long-postponed knee operation. Boss is inspired by them. In weepy asides to the camera he admits his shortcomings and resolves to be better in the future. At the end of the show, boss reveals true identity to employees and individually “grants” them their dreams – a pay-rise, a higher position, more time to spend with their kids, a bonus to pay for the knee operation. At which point the employees are overwhelmed with relief and gratitude, often breaking down and crying.

Formulaic format aside, the problem with Undercover Boss is that it plays on exploited workers to make tear-jerking TV. You can just imagine the programmers scouting employees for the show thinking “great, a Mexican immigrant who has held down two full-time jobs for ten years to pay for his kids education. And he's still smiling." "Fabulous, a woman who has thrown herself into her work since the death of her nine-year-old daughter in a car accident – working alongside her will make the CEO realize how little she appreciates and spends time with her own children, providing for some good, emotional drama” (that was in the Great Wolf Lodge episode).

In a grand finale all the firm’s staff are gathered together to watch excepts of the CEO’s undercover experience. The camera pans back over the joyful faces of the selected employees. I couldn’t help but think if it wasn’t for this reality TV show their lives would be just the same as before. And for each of them, there are millions of workers who haven’t got chosen for a show so are still holding down the two jobs, unable to fix an injury, or having to choose between getting enough food on the table for their kids and spending any time with them. Undercover boss makes all that into entertainment.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

New York missive no 80 - Art in Harlem

Yesterday C, JNH, W and I strolled around Harlem looking at art. Like the SONYA art stroll in Fort Greene last year, the Harlem Art Walking Tour involved artists opening up the galleries, apartments, and beautiful brownstones where they work to visitors. As before, the buildings and their occupants were as intriguing as the art: it’s a wonderful way to explore behind normally-closed front doors. Interior worlds are exposed to the outside for a day.

This is the painting that C and I would love to buy if we win the lottery - by an artist called Brian Patrick Kelly (it's huge but somehow I can only get the pic to appear tiny here which doesn't begin to do it justice, though it's bigger at this link):

There was another I loved too, by a woman who squeezes thirty or forty hours a week of painting round the edges of her full time job as an army engineer. Angered by the gulf oil spill, she had used olive oil and paint to create a canvas of swirling blackish blue.

The art was followed by feeding JNH in Marcus Garvey Park, then feeding ourselves on heaps of soul food at Sylvia’s off 125th Street. I had smothered chicken. I wondered briefly if the name is a reference to the way the chicken is killed - but no, it's just that it's smothered in gravy.


I recently went through and tagged this blog with placenames, the purpose being to create a kind of personal geography of the city. I’ve tried to be strict with myself, street names and district names only. No landmarks, venues or other buildings to avoid too much clutter.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

New York missive no 79 - Bubble baths and a piano

The bathroom, when I’m in it and in a bath, becomes a room of my own. I’ve just emerged from an hour-long bubble bath. During that time the bubbles disappeared, I read newspapers and got them splashed, my skin wrinkled and my thoughts wandered. The sound-monitor perched on the side of the sink was quiet of baby cries. Precious time.

Now there’s the noisy rhythm of a breast pump accompanying me as I write this, held in place by a sports-bra with two little holes cut into the cups. I’m topping up J’s supply for tomorrow while I’m at work. At one point during my pregnancy I mentioned that I felt like a bear. As the nursing mother of a newborn it’s easy to feel like a cow.

That’s in addition to the wonderful feelings of course. Among them is the delight of discovering things for the first time again – indirectly, but consciously this time around. It brings you back to the essence of things, clears out the crap. A tree. A toe. A laugh.


An email came into my inbox, “My mother’s piano.” In it V described the Jessie French & Sons spinet that her parents had bought after their wedding in 1945 (they met, I later learned, in Astoria). It had accompanied her into her apartments in Brooklyn Heights and Broadway. Now that she was moving out somewhere smaller it needed a new home. Did anyone want it? Yes please, I replied. Without having looked into the size and weight of a Jessie French & Sons spinet (she’d said it was small), nor thought about whether we could get it up into our third floor apartment. I could put that hasty and somewhat impractical enthusiasm down to having a baby preventing me from spending much time in careful deliberation. Or, perhaps more accurately, to my tendency for impulsive “yeses” that to date has brought so much into my life but that could get the better of me one day.

The guys from Washington Heights who moved me from 109th Street to Bank Street, and C and I into our Astoria apartment, managed to get it into their van and through our front door. But there was no way, we realized, they were going to get it up to the apartment. With three of them and C helping they could hardly lift it, let alone get it up some narrow flights of stairs punctuated with sharp turns. So there it sat. A challenge to my impulsiveness. By then I had become attached to it and determined to get it up somehow. I found Marco the piano-restorer nearby in Astoria, who gave me the number of a Chinese man he said could “do the impossible” when it came to moving pianos. Next morning, Chinese man was there on my doorstep with two others – one diminutive, like him, the other huge. When C questioned whether they’d be able to get it up the stairs he responded rather curtly that they move pianos all the time. Sure enough, with the aid of a rope, a blanket and a small set of wheels they’d maneuvered it into place in 10 minutes and were off and away. Now for tuning, and playing...

New York missive no 78 - future environmentalism...and the NYC subway map

In his recent Open Democracy piece Confessions of a recovering environmentalist Paul Kingsnorth laments environmentalism’s shift away from an emotional connection with wild places that are unmarked by human influence, to a human-oriented science that lacks soul. Two traits, as he sees them, characterize the new environmentalism: an obsession with climate change (and resulting numbers-driven fixation on reducing emissions, even when this means colonizing wild places with turbines or solar panels), and the political mainstreaming of environmentalism by the left. They are important points, but as Kingsnorth himself acknowledges, he doesn’t come up with any answers about the way forward. He rightly criticizes the human-centric approach of the new environmentalism but takes it too far – saying that social and environmental justice are not connected (try telling that to someone whose land or livelihood has been destroyed by an oil spill, be it in Nigeria, Ecuador or the US Gulf), and almost, it seems, advocating for a world without people.

In a response, Andrew Dobson points out that the situation is not as dire as Kingsnorth implies. And, he says, you don’t have to go to untouched wildernesses to find a connection with nature. “Kingsnorth had his epiphany after boating up rivers in Borneo by moonlight - a ‘two-month immersion in something raw and unmediated’. If this is what has to happen for us to reconnect, then we surely are in deep trouble. Fortunately, it’s not like that. Most people have a much lower nature tolerance than Kingsnorth, so we need less exposure to nature to get the same hit as he does. This is good news: I can see something worth protecting just about everywhere, and not only where nature is at its wildest.”

Something worth protecting just about everywhere…that point is emphasized in a recent New York magazine article about how New York City has much higher biodiversity than many people imagine. In fact the diverse and dynamic characteristics of the environment here can encourage rare species to arrive and thrive - scientists are starting to see the city as "an ecological hotspot". People often ask me if I feel Astoria “lacks green spaces". You could easily say that - bricks and concrete definitely dominate. But I feel surrounded by precious pockets of green. The pear tree outside our living room window with its noisy colony of birds and squirrels, the herbs growing on our balcony, the tangled garden out the back of the house, Astoria Park, Socrates Sculpture Park, the two Coves Community Garden, the pigeons that poo over shiny cars parked beneath the El trains...(a welcome intervention as far as I'm concerned).


One day soon after C and I had met we were traveling on the 7 train. I pointed out how the New York City subway map looks like a person on a life support machine. Manhattan is the person, with lifelines and wires connecting it to the Bronx, Queens and Brooklyn that nourish it and keep it alive. C said he agreed but wished I hadn’t pointed it out because if we ever broke up, the subway map would always remind him of me and that conversation. Now each time I see the subway map I’m reminded of that conversation and the strength of our relationship.

Monday, September 20, 2010

New York missive no 78 - a meditator and a musician

Some mornings I break up the subway ride into work with a walk through Central Park. I get out at Lex and 59th street, or at 5th Ave and 59th, then walk through the bottom of the park to Columbus Circle, where I get the 1 train the rest of the way. In the park one day last week I saw a man sitting on a rock in what I thought was a meditative pose. His arms hung loose down either side of his body. Then I noticed that in one hand he held a cigarette, and in the other a cup of coffee.

I also passed a man who, the previous day, had been sitting down tentatively playing on a little pipe thing. This time, he was standing upright, blasting out a tune on bagpipes. Like a peacock parading his fanned-out tail.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

New York missive no 77 - down 28th Street to work

Last time I walked down 28th Street passed the flower sellers on my way to work I was pregnant and excited. Yesterday when I walked down 28th Street passed the flower sellers on my way to work I was tired and happy. Four months later. A bubble of time in which we reveled in the magic and messiness of a life beginning.

Posts on a piano, a meaty diet, and the New York City subway map to come when I have a minute.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

New York missive no 76 - Il Fornaio bakery, Astoria

An Astoria scene…

Il Fornaio (also known as Vacarro's) is a Sicilian bakery on the corner of 30th Ave and 30th Street where the produce is tasty as long as you have the patience to wait for it. The other day a woman called Samantha, Sam for short, was waiting with a girl friend for their sandwiches to be made. Sam was large and beautiful, with dark wavy hair, a subtle nose stud and her curves accentuated by a tight top and trousers. She oozed sex appeal that she managed with poise. The Italian-American guy in his mid-thirties working at the till was enthralled. “So how old are you Sam?”


“Eighteen?! Jesus Christ. Still in high school?”


“You Italian?”


“What’s the other half?”


“That explains it, where you get those good looks from.”

Another customer reminded till-man that he was still waiting to pay. Till man dealt with the transaction then turned his attention right back to Sam.

“You ladies eating in or taking out?”

There are three stools in Il Fornaio. A man sitting on the middle one got up so the two girls could sit next to each other. “You gave them napkins?” till man asked the man who made the sandwiches. Delighted that the answer was no, till man came out from behind the counter and approached the two girls, bunch of napkins in hand.
At which point my salami sandwich was ready and I had to leave Sam, Sam's friend and till man to it.

This seemed such an Astoria scene to me, for the friendly interaction (in a small shop) between strangers (doesn’t have to be flirtatious) and the fact ethnic background was factored into the equation.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

New York missive no 75 - Raising a dobritican

Tomorrow we’re taking JNH to London for a month. He’ll get his first taste of the Britishy side of his heritage – other, that is, than me, and his early encounters with his maternal grandparents. I often wonder how the two sides will play out in him, British and Dominican American. As W commented when we were in Central Park in the scorching 100 degree heat the other day, the reason he coped remarkably well could have been his Dominican blood or his British stiff upper lip. Probably a healthy combination of the two.

In other cases the two influences may pull him in opposite directions. There’s British indirectness in an attempt to avoid conflict at all costs, compared with Dominican directness that accepts conflict is a part of life. A Dominican love of food and the accompanying belief that being gordito equals healthy, compared with a British ambivalence towards food and cautious consumption for fear of getting fat. (That contrast has come up already, when relatives on his Dominican side came round and were excited how fat he’d got and I felt myself cringing thinking he was growing too big too fast, which was rather ridiculous given he was only a few weeks old). And there are traits stemming no doubt from the countries’ colonial experiences, a British gung-ho optimism - close affiliate of the stiff upper lip -compared with a Dominican tendency to pessimism.

That’s to generalize dramatically of course. In C and I’s personalities we each have elements of the other’s national stereotypes, and JNH will have a unique combination of his own – just like so many other kids here in Astoria: American, of mixed parentage. And arguably a bigger difference between C and my backgrounds than ethnicity and nationality is economic. I grew up in a terraced house near the river Thames then a leafy London suburb never worrying about not having enough money to get by (even if my parents did have stressful financial periods), where it seemed nothing was wanting. While C, moving from apartment to apartment in Washington Heights, saw his recently-immigrated Mum worrying if they would have enough to get through the week, and Dad counting on his bed each night the money he’d made from his taxi-rounds.

Being a parent resuscitates childhood. Not only by seeing through the eyes of a child again but also the vivid memories it generates of our own childhoods and the ways those influence our child-rearing.


Downtown Hartfield, Connecticut at the weekend – you can feel the sleep. The streets are deserted and all the shops and restaurants are closed. We were there for a wedding. Which was a lot of fun, but hanging out in the town waiting for our train the next day made us keen to get back to New York asap. The town had all the characteristics of a commercial center that has known highs, and lows, and highs, and now another low. There were lots of empty office buildings with their blank-staring windows. The only places open were Subway, Burger King and Dunkin’ Donuts. One of the tracks at the train station was closed. We emerged on Sunday evening at Grand Central and hooray! Life! Lots of it.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

New York missive no 74 - The American way of birth

A few days after JNH was born, M and C suggested I go for a walk around the block to have a bit of time out. I walked along to the corner, went half-way down the next street, then had to turn back again. I was amazed how, emotionally, the umbilical cord was still attached and I couldn’t leave JNH alone. Even to walk round the block! Of course since then that cord has loosened, or at least extended.

C and I left him recently with his aunt Z for a few hours while we went to see Oliver Stone’s new documentary “South of the Border” at the Angelica. (An entertaining and personal take on Latin America’s leftist leaders, Chávez, Correa, Lula, Kirchner and Lugo, but too much of a whistle-stop tour to provide much new insight. It was a stark reminder though of how right-wing the US is. Due to its misplaced continued sense of its own dominance perhaps, and the fact that it is mired in political point-scoring and inward-looking attitudes, any political progressiveness is stunted despite the election of Obama. But I digress…).

My feeling as we worked our way through the shopping throngs on West Broadway was, “wow, I have this little miracle waiting for me at home, none of you can imagine…”. Which is rather illogical given there would have been plenty of people among those crowds who have also experienced parenthood.

Then last week I ventured out for a while on my own, to teach a class on business and human rights at NYU. Again I had a strong feeling that my identity has changed. It had been bizarre enough riding the subway the first few times in November with a wedding ring on my finger. Now there I was thinking “I’m a mother.” There was a pregnant woman in the crowded N train (standing up, as most pregnant subway-riders in NYC have to do). I couldn’t resist asking her if it was her first child. She looked young and in great shape and somehow I presumed it was. “No, my third,” she replied. “Oh, I said. It’s just that I had a baby a couple of months ago...I wanted to say that you’re in for the time of your life. But I guess you are an old hand now.” “I don’t know about old hand...” she laughed, but did add that she happily left her kids all the time.

After the class one of the students, a Polish woman who has two sons of her own, walked out with me. We exchanged rants about the American Way of Birth (aha, should write something about that sometime...but have now just realized a day after posting this that Jessica Mitford already did, after her American Way of Death). She gave birth to her first son in Texas. She said that there even more than in New York, where there is something of a move back towards a natural approach to childbirth and rearing if you look hard enough, she was considered a freak for breastfeeding. In both places the rate of cesarean section is incredibly high – I think it's over 30% in the US as a whole. It is wonderful that women have the opportunity for a cesarean section when it’s medically necessary, but it is extraordinary that so many now choose to have their babies brought out of them that way. More to the point, are guided into that choice by doctors and insurance companies. And choose to feed them a manufactured product derived from what cows feed their calves. More to the point, are influenced into that choice by the formula firms. Can it be a coincidence, too, that women who have had cesareans have a harder time breastfeeding at the beginning so are more likely to go with formula? But how easy to be judgmental about how other mothers bring their children into the world and help them navigate it. One of the biggest lessons I’ve learned over the past couple of months is that when it comes to parenting, judgment should be left aside.

Monday, July 5, 2010

New York missive no 73 - Funes el memorioso

How humbling that a tiny seven-week old creature can rule two “adults” lives.


The pear tree outside our living room had been reminding me of Borges’ short story “Funes el Memoriso” (Funes the Memorious). That’s because I remembered, or thought I remembered, that Funes’ overwhelmingly acute memory meant that he could recall the formation of the leaves on all the trees he had seen. Something about the shapes of the dense pear-tree leaves tremoring in the wind, with little white dots where the sunlight made it through, brought that story to mind. I ran through what I thought I remembered about the story.

Funes, I thought, was an old man, sitting on a bench outside in a dirt courtyard, recounting to the narrator the ways in which his perfect memory manifests itself. He can take a day to re-live a past day in his mind. Then I re-read the story to see whether my memory was true. Only partly. Funes is young, not old, though when the lights come up at the end of the story the narrator sees that despite his nineteen years his features are “more ancient than Egypt”. And he’s sitting in a darkened black room, not in a courtyard. But there was the reference to the trees. "En efecto, Funes no sólo recordaba cada hoja de cada árbol de cada monte, sino cada una de las veces que la había percibido o imaginado" (Funes didn’t only remember every leaf on every tree on every mountain, but also every time that he had seen or imagined it). Funny though, that I had remembered that detail and not some of the even more unusual ones. Like the difficulty Funes had in conceiving of a concept like "dog", given that he had trouble understanding that a dog seen in profile at 3.14pm is the same thing as a dog seen face-on at 3.15.

How selective our memories are. Yet there are so many ways that they come to participate in our present. Perhaps their imperfection is a blessing. For Funes his "perfect" memory was a constraint, crowding out any sense of abstraction, filling space with detail to leave no room for meaning. Long live forgetfulness.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

New York missive no 72 - Three birth stories

For some reason I took Ariel Dorfman’s autobiography “Rumbo al Sur, Deseando El Norte" to the hospital with me when I went into labour. There it sat by my hospital bed. As if I would be putting my feet up and reading in-between contractions. I knew though, that some labours can take a long time to get underway so thought I’d have it with me just in case. Anyway, no reading was done in hospital. But by coincidence when I did finally open the book up again when we got home it happened to be at the start of chapter two when Dorfman’s mother gives birth to him, in Buenos Aires. She had been given a pain relief gas so was drugged up when he was born. In her delirious state she had the sensation that he was falling. “Doctor, se cae el nene, se cae el nene,” (the baby’s falling), were the first words he heard her say, though of course he couldn’t understand them. Dorfman sees that as a metaphor for what happens to all newborns. “Yo caía hacia la soledad y la nada, de cabeza hacia la muerte,” I was falling towards loneliness and nothing, headfirst towards death.

Another birth story popped up when M, who was here helping for two weeks after JNH’s arrival, read me a passage from Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s autobiography that she had brought with her, Infidel. It describes the birth of Hirsi Ali’s mother in Somalia. “My mother, Asha, was born sometime in the early 1940’s, along with her identical twin sister, Halimo. My grandmother gave birth to them alone, under a tree. They were her third and fourth children; she was about eighteen, leading her goats and sheep to pasture when she felt the pains. She lay down and bore forth; then she cut the umbilical cords with her knife. A few hours later, she gathered together the goats and the sheep and managed to bring the herd home safely before dark, carrying her newborn twins. Nobody was impressed by the exploit; she was bringing home two more girls.”

Each birth story is different. JNH’s wasn’t as dramatic as either of those but was momentous in the way that any mother experiences the birth of her first child as momentous. My water broke, or half-broke, before I had any contractions, at home following a bowl of pasta and an afternoon snooze. C and I gathered up our bags and went to the 30th Ave subway station where a bunch of black cabs hang out under the tracks. The first driver had no idea where New York Downtown Hospital was. I said it was by Brooklyn Bridge, and he replied, “Ah yes, in Brooklyn…”(it’s on the Manhattan side, near Chinatown). Much consulting of maps and gesticulating later, all the while me concerned the rest of my water would break and contractions would kick in, and envisaging one of those New York births-in-a-taxi that only happen in films, another driver finally showed up who knew the way. More water falling just as we were about to get out of the cab and soon after, on a hospital bed and plugged into various monitors, labouring got underway. I used the monitors to vent my anger as the contractions intensified, “get me off these f***ing things”, as if roaming around the room would necessarily make the pain - which was all in my back - less intense.

I could easily have been in a dazed state like Dorfman’s mum when JNH was born. I’d wanted to give birth as naturally and drug-free as possible. But just as I was about to give in after 8 hours or so of contractions and have some IVF pain medication, I felt something change. “I think he’s coming,” I said. The doctor, who’d been elsewhere tending to more complicated patients than me checked where things were at and said yes, are you up to pushing? I pushed (accompanied by plenty of operatics – all those classes re calm breathing right out of the window), and an hour later there he was.

A tiny creature splayed on my chest like a shipwrecked sailor clinging to a life-raft.


Current mission is getting JNH to sleep properly. He loves the subway, just as C did as a child, when his mother took him for rides on the graffiti-covered A train from Washington Heights for fun, C gazing out of its windows at the dark tunnel walls. So we’ve considered putting JNH on board the N at 30th Ave in his car seat, headed to Coney Island, with a note saying “Please leave me on this train till it’s back in Astoria where my parents will collect me.”

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

New York missive no 71 - Fragile sleep

Everything is so fragile, including sleep. His sleep and ours, we never know how long it will last.

The little señor JNH came into the world early in the morning on Saturday 15 May 2010 at New York Downtown Hospital. There should be a verb for “born”. “Was born” is much too passive.

He opened his eyes just a few hours later. Bewildered, awed, he took in what he could make of his surroundings, slowly opening and closing his mouth at the same time. At that point his surroundings were only whatever was within 12 inches of his face. Over the next few months and years, that radius will reach further and further away.

I’m now savouring the moments of wonder and immersed in a milk production effort. More to come...

Friday, May 14, 2010

New York missive no 70 - The Italian guerilla gardener

There’s a strip of gardens behind our house. Renting the third floor apartment means we don’t strictly have access to ours, though I’m sure we will be invited to invade from time to time by P and P who live downstairs. In the mornings the gardens fill with a mix of birdsongs that come through our window and call us out of sleep. But the gardens are surrounded by construction work. Every spare inch of Astoria, every foreclosed home, is soon colonized by a new identikit apartment block stretching as tall as permitted or a little bit taller and confronting the world with rows upon row of square eyes. So this morning, like many recent mornings, the birdsong was drowned at regular intervals by the growling of drills and thump of hammers. Tweet, tweet, peacefulness, grrrrrrr. Tweet, tweet chirrup. Grrrrrrrrr. Bang bang. Etc.

An elderly Italian man plants things in the garden. He’s not “a gardener” as such. Several years ago when P’s Dad, who owns the house, was living here, the man appeared on the doorstep and somehow they reached an agreement – despite P’s Greek Dad not speaking Italian and the man not speaking any Greek or English – that he could come and plant things, use part of the produce himself and leave the rest for the occupants of the house. He disappears in Winter but reappears most Summers to put in vegetables and tend to the fig tree. No-one who currently lives here knows his name - I’m looking forward to getting into the garden one day when he’s there to say hello.

It seems a dispute could be afoot though. P asked me the other day if I spoke Italian (I don’t), because of a potential misunderstanding with the garden man. P’s wife (also P) had planted some cucumbers, under little mounds. A few days later, she could swear the mounds had been meddled with. Sabotage? Then I had a dream. In it, I opened the blind in the morning to see a new fence dividing the garden length-wise in two, woman-P gardening on one side and garden-man on the other.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

New York missive no 69 - What language to write about New York?

Pregnant women here have so many sonograms that by the end of a pregnancy you have a sporadic visual history of the baby’s development in the womb. But it’s still a pretty sketchy history. The images are blotchy and blurry with dark undefined areas, let alone the dark areas between each sonogram, when who knows what’s going on in there. A hidden cauldron where a life is being made. Thankfully large amounts of mystery are retained.

As for the sonograms, you can compare them to works by different artists .

My first, at 8 weeks, was a Magritte. A simple schwoosh against a grey background. “Ceci est un poisson. Main non! C’est un embryon. À huit semaines.” Or just simply, “Ceci n’est pas un poisson.”

Then there was a Chagall, a swirly figure surrounded by floating bits.

At twenty weeks, a 3D sonogram that looked like an illustration from Grimms Fairy Tales. A cheeky, rather distorted-looking face peering out of a shadowy forest.

Then a “growth scan” last week that was a Picasso. This time he was hiding his face in his hands and the detail was hard to make out, so what we saw were bits of body at jaunty angles: ribs, a femur, a hand.

Anytime from now to three week’s time he’ll be making his entrance. He’ll shake off those paintings and become rather more real.


At Coney Island the other day I took a picture of a mural that says, “There are over 200 languages spoken in New York City, making it the most diverse city on Earth.” A wonderful New York Times article recently said there are many more – up to 800. Many are “endangered” languages spoken by only a handful of people in the world and that may not be known by any in a few generations’ time. The article describes how the Endangered Language Alliance is seeking out and recording them, using field techniques “usually employed in exotic and remote foreign locales as it starts its research in the city’s vibrant ethnic enclaves.” Among them are Vlashki, a variant of Istro-Romanian, Garifuna, Mamuju, Aramaic, Chaldic, Bukhari, Chamorro and Irish Gaelic.

The evening that article came out, C, L and I went to “New York Stories,” four authors talking at Morgan Library about writing about New York City as part of the PEN World Voices festival. The most refreshing voice there was the Catalán writer Quim Monzó. There was a strange sense of déjà vu or repetition among what the other writers said about the city. Perhaps because they were talking about writers - as well as their own writing – who had a somewhat privileged perspective on the city (even if not all their characters did). Colm Tóibín (who we’d heard reading from his fabulous novel "Brooklyn" a few weeks back in the rather different setting of the Poisson Rouge in Bleeker Street) spoke about Henry James. Roxana Robinson about Edith Wharton. And Darryl Pinckney about Elizabeth Hardwick. Maybe it was also because they were writers in English talking about other writers in English. Monzó writes in Catalán. His refreshing perspective included a challenge to "street-name fetishism". Why, he wondered, do New York novels obsess that such-and-such event happened on "Fifth Avenue" or "the corner of 14th and Greenwich," as if to infuse the event with stolen geographical gravitas?

It made me think too much writing about New York repeats the same themes. There is the potential for a kaleidoscopic diversity of perspectives that is unrealized when the dominant writing on New York is in English. Someone with time on their hands could create a literary map of the city linking to works about it in its hundreds of languages (with English translations?!).

The following Sunday the language theme came up again at an interview with Ariel Dorfman – also a PEN World Voices event, this time down at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in Battery Park. Dorfman is completely bi-lingual in Spanish and English. He gave the example of the first sentence of his autobiography "Heading South, Looking North" to illustrate the ways in which languages express life in unique ways. What you can say in one simply can’t be said, or can’t be said via the same route, in another. He wrote the memoir in English first. In English, the first sentence reads, “"I should not be here to tell this story." Meaning that had he chosen, as he initially intended to do, to stay in Chile after Pinochet’s coup rather than become an exile, he would have been killed along with fellow members of Allende’s government. When it came to translating the autobiography into Spanish he grappled for several weeks with that one opening sentence. And he realized that in Spanish, a person, a “someone”, who died in his place had to be present in the sentence. “Si estoy contando esta historia, si la puedo contar, as porque alguien, muchos años atrás en Santiago de Chile, murió en mi lugar."

Some other wonderful nuggets from that dense hour-long conversation, not all directly language-related even though language permeates them:

- The English language is going to have to become more “Latin American”, in the sense of incorporating external influences and not remaining entirely itself.

- The US has many narratives, but you can simplify them into a “dark” and a “light” narrative.

- Dorfman’s wary of questions of identity because they often become questions of exclusivity. True. You could say, “hold on, isn't his whole life and work inevitably grappling with questions of identity?” But instead he has made an entirely conscious decision to embrace a notion of humanity that rises above (or flows below) identity. One that is empowered by human rights.

- During the Q and A, a woman in the audience confessed to having a martini beforehand – surely more than one it seemed. Then she proceeded with a rambling and vulnerably star-struck question about political fiction and her own project to write about Lynndie England, the US soldier now serving time for her role in the atrocities at Abu Ghraib. Dorfman, while encouraging her, said that in fiction characters have to have autonomy. If you have decided in advance what you (narrator) want to say politically then the characters are not free to speak for themselves, and it’s best to avoid literature altogether.

- Dorfman cited Margaret Atwood who disagrees that writing literature “reveals” the author. Instead, she believes, people write to hide.

Back to languages and the city for a moment. The proliferation of languages can be alienating, of course. In a local Queens newspaper a Flushing resident said he wished that the Chinese language signs on the shops were also in English, because he feels disorientated in his neighbourhood. And a recent article in the Village Voice describes the chasm of misunderstanding between Chinese, Dominican and hipster residents in a Delancey building.


I read Graham Swift’s inspiring short story “Learning to Swim” recently. In it a young boy breaks free from his silently feuding parents’ crushing competition for his love. (I seem to be drawn towards stories with parenting in them at the moment). Then when I was picking my way through tall bunches of blossom stacked outside flower stores on 28th Street on my way to work, I caught a glimpse through a shop window of a first edition of Swift's collection named after that story. Cities, with their densely-layered lives, are webs of echoes like that.


On the crowded 1-2-3 subway platform at 42nd Street an elderly man plucked a black plastic sack out of the bottom of a bin to put his possessions in. A uniformed MTA woman who was going round emptying the bins had a go at him. “Why you stealing all my bags?” she shouted. He protested gently that he hadn’t stolen all of them. We got into the same train carriage as him, where there were lots of nurses in their green scrubs. “Can you tell me why they’re kicking the patients out of all the hospitals?” he asked the nurses. “Every hospital I pass has a sign saying, ‘Out patients’”. The nurses didn’t reply. I thought it was rather funny.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

New York missive no 69 - When Nietzsche Wept, and a crisis about "stuff"

In the afterword of When Nietzsche Wept, Irvin Yalom says that in an essay describing his process for writing the novel, he quoted André Gide: “History is fiction that did happen. Whereas fiction is history that might have happened.” Yalom goes on, “Fiction is history that might have happened. Perfect! That was precisely the fiction I wanted to write. My novel, When Nietzsche Wept, could have happened.” In other words, even though Dr Breuer and Nietzsche never met so their reciprocal “treatment” described in the novel never took place, they could have met, and the treatment could have happened.

Then in 2003 Yalom was sent a letter in which one of Nietzsche’s friends, the poet Siegfried Lipiner, tries to convince another friend, Heinrich Koselitz, to send Nietzsche to Vienna where he would receive treatment for his mental and physical sickness from Doctor Breuer. In his reply Koselitz advises against the plan. But the letter shows how right Gide was – that fictionalized event was on the verge of happening in reality. And it is a reminder of the dizzying number of possibilities that lie in fiction. If the fiction that is already out there tells of things that could have happened, how many more “could haves” are contained in fiction that has not yet been written?

This apparently infinite number of possibilities seems to contradict Nietzsche’s theory of eternal recurrence that he describes to Breuer (in the book). They are walking through the cemetery where Breuer’s parents are buried. Nietzsche says that because time stretches infinitely backward for all eternity, everything that can happen must have already happened. Therefore every time you choose an action you must be willing to choose it for all eternity, because at some point in the future it will happen again. “What is immortal is this life, this moment…This moment exists forever,” he says. But perhaps this moment, the now, bears so much weight not because it will infinitely repeat itself, but because it may never happen in reality again.

What we actually live is a microscopic fragment of existence. And either way you look it – whether as eternal recurrence or as a never-to-be-repeated combination of life-detail – “this moment” is precious. It may seem fragile, but it is all we have. And given that it is all we have, it is powerful. Just like other microscopic fragments.


A sign of my addled mind (I like to think pregnancy-induced addledness): in my diary I’d noted “C-boxing” for last night, because there was a boxing match he wanted to watch. Then in the Sunday space, I’d put “1pm – boxing”. It should say “1pm yoga” but I guess I just caught a glimpse of the word boxing in the previous box and copied it. So apparently at 1pm today I’m going to a pre-natal boxing class. I’m picturing lots of pregnant-bellied women hopping around the ring, gloved hands to chests, taking swipes at one another.


Soon after we moved to Astoria I got home from a fruitless search for a mop and had a bit of an emotional crisis about “stuff”. I’d been looking in the nearby $ shops and suddenly felt overwhelmed by the amount of stuff out there to buy – which is a bit contradictory given that I’d been in the shops because I needed to buy something. “There’s just….there’s just….so much...STUFF. Too much STUFF!” I sobbed.

Recently my concerns about stuff have taken a more practical turn.

There is more and more stuff in the world (conveniently yet inaccurately extricating myself in that phrase from responsibility for generating more demand for stuff ) – and yet it comes from increasingly limited sources. We watched FoodInc recently, a powerful documentary on the extreme concentration of the food industry and the horrendous consequences of that concentration for people’s lives and the environment. I’m immersed in these issues for my work yet reminded myself there’s so much I should be doing to live the change I want to see in the world, and not use living in a megacity as an excuse. So off I’ve been the last two weeks to Union Square farmer’s market to buy real food (beef that has been fed on grass, for example), finding myself forking out a small fortune to pay the real price for that real food. It’s a worthwhile investment though, when you think that the cost you save by buying mass-produced food is still there, but is borne by the workers and land down its supply chain. I’m not going to switch to 100% perfect purchasing (could there ever be such a thing?) overnight but figure that each product I buy carefully, knowing the source, is a step in the right direction. And I know that eating right doesn’t have to cost a fortune either –time to get those vegetable and herb plants planted on our balcony. Start a balcony-to-balcony food revolution in Astoria?...

Then there's a pending deluge of baby stuff. So far we’ve resisted going overboard and haven’t stepped foot in a Buy Buy Baby or Babies R Us. But as with food it can seem that the choices are to buy cheap from a mass-production conglomerate or buy very expensive from niche sources. Or, adopt a balancing act – a combination of investing a few things that matter (one of which was the moses basket for him to sleep in the first few months, I decided), minimizing other things, exploring alternative marketplaces like Etsy, using some things second hand (though I’m not sure whether the nightgowns from the 1800s that Mum found in her attic, passed down over the generations, will survive another wear!), and then accepting stuff, of course, guilt-free, when it’s given us by others...(!)


Turns out that the tree outside our window is a pear tree. Which I really should have recognized from last Spring – see New York missive no. 49

Friday, April 9, 2010

New York missive no 69 - Closure of St Vincents Hospital

Last night we were supposed to be going to St Vincents for a free tour of the maternity ward. But the woman running it called in the afternoon to say it’s been cancelled because the hospital is closing – the hospital board announced the closure on Tuesday and it’s happening pretty much right away. So that’s that. 160 years of treating the population of lower Manhattan, and now the buildings will probably be turned into just more expensive apartment buildings. I came home via the hospital to see what was going on and passed a nurses protest – 800 will probably lose their jobs. Their placards summed up the situation well. “Condos don’t save lives," said one.

Round the corner I spotted a plaque on the wall about the poet Edna St Vincent Millay, where I learned that she was named after the hospital:

So our little Dobritican (the word C came up with for Dominican-British-American) will have to come into the world elsewhere. At the moment it’s looking like New York Downtown Hospital in the financial district. The description of its maternity ward sounds a little condo-like itself: “New mothers deliver in the Hospital's beautifully renovated, state-of-the-art Maternity Center, which is equipped with attractive, family-oriented suites for labor and delivery.”

But I won’t pass judgment too quickly. I’m sure all will be well and my obstetrician, who won’t change, will give us all the control we need over how the baby’s born.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

New York missive no 68 - God and the lack of

On Monday the midwife we saw said how relieved she is that the maternity ward at St Vincent’s Hospital is probably staying open. Not only because it means the nurses there will keep their jobs, but because, she said, it’s one of the few remaining obstetrics wards in New York where childbirth is still seen as a natural process, to be celebrated, rather than an encumbrance to be dealt with as quickly as possible with the aid of cesarean deliveries and pain relief methods. Long may it last.

Oh well I spoke too soon. Just after typing that last night we turned on the news to see that the latest deal to save the hospital - with Mt Sinai Hospital - has fallen through.


Everyone seemed to be reading about God this morning on the W train, while I was reading about Nietzsche. Not about him, exactly, but Irvin Yalom’s novel When Nietzsche Wept. It revolves around Nietzsche's fictitious treatment by the doctor Joseph Breuer in late nineteenth century Vienna, when, as Yalom describes in his note at the end, the “ticking embryo of psychotherapy” was in place. There is much discussion between the two about truth, and some about God, or the lack of. So far those discussions are driven by Nietzsche’s alluringly honest skepticism and Breurer’s battle to counter it. Breurer presents it as debilitating, even though to himself he acknowledges that he shares much of Nietzsche's beliefs and just is not brave enough to wholly embrace them. Or resists embracing them, so he can continue to pursue the semblance of a stable life. “Truth,” says Nietzsche at one point, “is arrived at through disbelief and skepticism, not through a childlike wishing something were so!” And “Surely, you must realize that we created God, and that all of us together now have killed him.” The woman to my right on the train was reading the chapter of Mary Kay Ash's autobiography called “God first, family second, career third.” And the man to my left, a book called “Learning God’s ways.”


Along the boardwalk at Brighton Beach the other weekend mothers pushed children in strollers and care-givers pushed the elderly in wheelchairs. It seems we start and end life being pushed around on wheels. Or to go even further back and forward, start and end life plugged into life-support machines – dependent.


Well Spring is in the air but those three entries are not particularly cheery. Time for a snooze.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

New York missive no 67

There isn’t a lot sea-faring about South Street Seaport, other than the museum ships you can visit. It’s no longer an active port, the old fish market is now a shopping development and conference centre, the cobbled streets are lined with outlets like Body Shop and Benetton. But elements linger – including the Seamen’s Church Institute where we had our wedding.

The room where I waited nervously, increasingly nervously, for the forty minutes before the ceremony, was the Knitting Room. There, well-meaning women come to knit hats and scarves to send to sailors who are out at sea over Christmas. So there I was in my dress and bright blue boa (M tweaking it to get it to sit right) surrounded by walls piled high with coloured balls of wool. C was waiting with Z just as nervously, I’m sure, in the “seafarers’ club” across the corridor, which when not accommodating grooms in their last few moments of bachelorhood has no doubt seen many a knees-up for old salts. That makes the venue sound, as I think I’d mentioned before, more fusty than it is.

The little chapel downstairs has a model ship hanging to one side above the altar. It was jam-packed with people so that I gasped a bit when we walked in (phew, they all came, and omigod there are so many!). The reception just after the ceremony was in a room full of more ships. One was called Sea-Witch – I felt an affinity with it given that the fantastical land I’d conjoured as a 10-year-old was called Sea-Wich. (Yes spelled like that. Mode of travel to reach it – take a flying tiger up the golden steps). And the main party was in the upstairs “Top Deck” with glass walls overlooking the Brooklyn Bridge and East River…so still with a sea presence. I named each of the tables after a seabird, illustrated with a bright photo so that in case they didn’t already, people could learn what their bird looks like. A mix of my and C’s university friends were on Blue-footed Booby. My work people were on Magnificent Frigatebird, and his were spread out between Laughing Gull and Elegant Tern. Some of my Writers Studio people were on Imperial Shag. Etc.

We stayed in a hotel close by, with a little balcony from which we could see the last people clearing up the party flotsam and jetsam then switching off the lights. Next morning as we walked in bright sunshine along the river we were greeted by a Venezuelan selling tickets for helicopter rides over the city – tourism being one of the main industries that has replaced the shipping and fishing. It seemed to make his day when we told him that we had got married the evening before, and we carried on our way with his shouts of felicidades following us.

Then it was joining up with a gaggle of friends and family – S tellingly still in her yellow wedding outfit and high heels – for a walk down the High Line and a jazz brunch at the Garage. During the meal M dug out from a plastic bag the teddy bear I’d had as a child, which she’d brought over from England. I had no idea he was still in existence. He hardly is. He has one eye, an eclectic spread of patches and none of his original fur, and stuffing coming out of his stomach. That prompted many a joke about what C has in store – “well, if that’s the state of her teddy bear…”


We haven’t honeymooned but instead have been making the most, in-between work, of pre-baby time in the city. There was a 4-borough day starting at home in Astoria then getting the subway through Manhattan down to Coney Island and Brighton Beach for strolling and hotdogs, followed by a Puerto-Rican meal with V and W at Willie's Steak House in the Bronx. C and I had pictured a salsa-club with tables elevated around a big round dance floor, instead the scene was more that of a family dining room with a stage at one end where a traditional band serenaded us as we and our predominantly older fellow diners ate – the livelier latin jazz nights are Wednesdays apparently. There was G’s two-year birthday party in Washington Heights. There was some rather bad but for that reason still amusing comedy at the Laugh Lounge on Lower East Side to celebrate our one (eventful) year anniversary. And quieter weekend days at home watching films and procrastinating over filling in the hundreds of forms for my green card application.


Over the past two weekends we went to intensive childbirth and newborn care classes in Soho. Intensive as in cramming the classes into three sessions rather than over several weeks, not classes on intensive childbirth – though the childbirth’s guaranteed to be intensive too in ways that no number of classes could ever predict or prepare us for fully. They’re run by a nurse from St Vincent’s Hospital. She has worked there for 25 years and not surprisingly has been active in the campaign to keep it open – it's on the verge of a second bankruptcy and has been going through a series of buyout/restructuring negotiations. Luckily it looks at the moment like it’s going to survive. That’s a relief for me too, because that is where I’m supposed to be giving birth.


Meanwhile my bump’s been getting progressively bigger. One the one hand being pregnant is such an animal-like experience, bearing and giving birth to children being something that females of all species, at least all mammals, share. At times recently I’ve felt like a big bear. Especially when I’m wrapped up in my winter grey duffle coat that’s now very tight round the belly. Watching the rather graphic videos of birthing women at the classes last weekend made both C and I, for some reason, think of cows. On the other hand it’s so human, in an emotional sense. Is that because we are the only species, at least think we’re the only species, that’s so conscious of where we have come from and the fact we’re going to die? At my 32-week sonogram last Monday we were startled by how vivid C’s father’s characteristics were in the little face that appeared on the screen. We were startled by the vividness both of the 3D images those machines can produce, and the vividness of the likeness. Here are the genes of a man I never met, and of C’s mother who I never met – I wish I could have known both of them – and of so many other people too going back in time, being mixed with my own and carried in me into a new life.


Astoria isn’t exactly a leafy borough, nor an architecturally appealing one. There’s not a lot of green space and the new buildings that are going up with much clanging and banging despite the downturn are tall identikit apartment buildings. They overshadow the row-houses squatting between them, which themselves, for the most part, are not exciting to look at. But there are more trees around than I’d realized at first, and because of the urban surroundings they stand out. There are fig trees brought over by Greeks, magnolias, and a tree just outside our living room and balcony that I’ve become captivated by. A pregnancy-enhanced attachment? When we moved here in November I thought it could be an evergreen because it still had dark green leaves. But then they quickly turned deep orange and fell. Now in March they are growing back again, pale green at the moment and accompanied by sprigs of tiny white flowers. I must find out from P and P downstairs what kind of tree it is. Just as I want to find out more about the birds that hang out in it. A few minutes ago there was a parrot-like bright red one singing his heart out. Maybe there’s an unrealized twitcher in me. “Birds of Astoria – exploits of an urban ornithologist,” I can see a best-seller brewing.


I’ve never been much of a bath-person, too quickly I start thinking of things I want to do when I get out. But now with my big belly and a back that’s started grumbling as a result of it they’ve rapidly become more appealing. Lying in our blue bath tub the other day piled high with bubbles I suddenly remembered my sister P and I having baths at our grandparents’ house when we were children. It was a narrow, olive green bathtub. We sat opposite each other with the wire soap wrack across the middle like a bridge between us, carrying my grandmother’s pumice stone, my grandfather’s pumice stone and a big bar of soap.

I’ve been having lots of strong place-associations. I’ll be doing something very mundane, like washing up or walking to work, and will picture a place from my past. A traffic jam on a road in Kingston, in South West London. K and I sheltering from monsoon rain with some street-sellers just to the South of the Chao Phraya river in Bangkok.


The fragility and arbitrariness of creating a life seems inadequate next to the enormity of it. Or as C put it so much better than I ever could in a poem, “An accident like the universe”.


We found ourselves having a “What is God?” conversation the other day. Then I riffed in my diary that I am content to believe not in some omnipotent creator but the fact that life itself is a miracle, potent enough without some higher being. If we need a God or Gods in various forms to remind us of that, so be it, but too often they steal the show, become a distraction.


At a talk at CUNY by the author of “The Prison and the American Imagination” I learned that Eastern State Penitentiary, at the time it opened in 1829, was the largest building in the world. It had running water before the White House. And people went on guided tours (they still can). The idea was that an extensive prison system though which criminals could be reformed through solitary confinement and then re-inserted into society reflected the post-Independence ideal of a citizen, and was so much more humane than the barbaric treatment of criminals in Europe and elsewhere.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

New York missive no 66 - Pussy willow

The city and the wedding

Well there are so many things I want to put here but rather than wait till they’re all written and posting at once I’ll post bit by bit…

Flower market on 28th Street

Along 28th Street, between 6th and 7th Avenues, P and I went in search of bunches of pussy willow and tall glass vases to hold them. That block is where all the flower shops are. It’s lined with wholesalers that brim with ferns, orchids, spring bulbs, and florists’ accessories like ribbons, coloured glass pebbles, and most recently, made-in-China gauze butterflies and feathered bird ornaments. And bunches of pussy willow. I’d passed them standing along the sidewalk like echoes of forest on my way to work in the morning. I hadn’t yet fixed any flower arrangements for the wedding other than primroses in blue pots on the dining tables and decided that big bunches of pussy willow in the chapel would be perfect.

We got there late in the day though, around 4pm. Some of the florists had already packed up for the day. Their dusty windows revealed bundled-up piles of branches or were enclosed behind metal shopfronts. We wandered into one that was bursting with perfect-looking blossoms to discover that all the flowers were made of silk. We found some boxes of pussy willow in one shop, but they seemed too tired and spindly. We tried a shop with orchids outside but they only sold hothouse plants. Then the orchid seller said the place we needed was just around the corner, on 6th Ave.

That too was closed but next door was International Garden Inc. On a high shelf there were tall slanted glasses, and in the back of the room, the pussy willow we’d been looking for. While next to us the finishing touches were put on a huge red funeral carriage bouquet with “I love you Dad” inscribed across the middle, we negotiated a price to hire four of the vases for the day, have them delivered to the venue full of pussy willow branches and picked up the next day.

That may sound like much ado about pussy willow but it became one of the most special features of the wedding. Its dark branches holding their catkins cast proud shadows against the wall at the back of the chapel. They were a subject of much interest to 2-year-old G before the ceremony began. After the ceremony they accompanied the guests upstairs and stood in strong, stretching clusters in the place where people put presents and poems. (We’d asked guests to bring poems, which were collected in a big china bowl and will be stuck into an eclectic wedding anthology of poets ranging from John Donne to Odgen Nash, Emily Dickinson to friends of C and I -particularly C’s English-teaching friends - who wrote their own for the occasion).

C and I returned home on the Sunday afternoon to find our bed had been turned by P and Al into a two-poster, with lettered balloons spelling “Just Married” laid out across the sheets. The pillars on either side of the bed were created by big bunches of pussy willow.

Friday, February 12, 2010

New York missive no 65 - Patience and Fortitude, the lions

I learned the other day that the two lions outside the 5th Ave New York Public Library (see NY missive no. 63) are called Patience and Fortitude.


At the prenatal yoga class a group of expectant mums maneuvers and breathes deeply with their bellies of different sizes, releasing all the blockages that build up during the day between them and their babies who wait patiently for birth. No hurry.


In an increasingly complex world it becomes more and more important to be simple. Otherwise you just blur, for yourself and others. That’s where Bush had the benefit over Obama (simplicity can be dangerous).


Never did I think I’d see the day when I’d be busily making wedding plans. There’s only a week to go now, with the pending arrival of friends, parents and sisters (this lucky kid is going to have three aunts: one in the Swiss mountains, one in San Francisco, one in the Dominican Republic). My brain’s been getting a bit addled with to-do lists but the whole process has involved plenty of laughter and learning, bringing together people from across the city to help create an event.

There’s Grace from Table Tables in South Street Seaport with whom we’ve concocted a British (small eats) and Dominican (main course) menu. Sarah the Brooklyn-based photographer. The people from Omonia café in Astoria, who made the cake that featured in “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” and are also making ours on a somewhat smaller scale. Gabriela the DJ. David who is conducting the ceremony: we met with him today and suddenly the occasion feels whole. And the miracle-working Nelly in Flushing, who with a few weeks notice is making me a dress that will fit me and my expanding belly, with fabric I tracked down one lunchtime in the garment district.

Through all of this I’m learning about relationships too of course. The wonder of a a complete commitment to respect another person for who they are, share with them and love them. And how, far from being confining in anyway, when those feelings work in both directions it is liberating. C and I have compressed encountering each other, getting to know each other, pregnancy, moving in together, engagement and marriage into less than a year…with childbirth and a whole new journey to embark on in May. We could be frazzled by this emotional roller-coaster but instead it's somehow made us steadier, there's a strong quiet calmness beneath it all.


We recently saw “Note by Note,” a documentary about the Steinway piano factory in Astoria, with an ecclectic bunch of people at the Astoria Historical Society. The society shares its building with a funeral parlour. And in the room next door to ours a Weight-Watchers meeting was underway. Despite the quirky surroundings it was well worth going. The documentary was fascinating and beautifully filmed, an elegy to the kind of craftsmanship that involves ten stages or more spread out over a year, each involving a different person or group of people with precise skills passed down from previous workers, to create a piano. The workers interviewed had the same kind of now-rare pride in their careful work that Nelly clearly has making and mending clothes, in the studio where she has been working for over twenty years.


My pregnancy hasn’t come accompanied by cravings, quite, but yes by a hankering for certain foods (which, this being America, I go and get and eat): oatmeal, Kit-Kats, coconut juice, leek and potato soup.


In the introduction to a New Yorker photo series of veterans of the civil rights movement, David Remnick says that Obama, talking about the relationship between their struggle and his own campaigning, rejected any direct comparison but added, “they are related only in the sense that at the core of the civil-rights movement…there is a voice that is best captured by King, which says that we, as African-Americans, are American, and that our story is America’s story, and that by perfecting our rights we perfect the Union – which is a very optimistic story, in the end. It is fundamentally different from the story that many minority groups go through in other countries…There’s no equivalent, if you think about it, in many other countries – that sense that, through the deliverance of the least of the these, the society as a whole is better."

A belief in the possibility of the perfection of the union can be used for harmful ends, when driven by a sense of American exceptionalism. But at the same time it creates an environment of striving optimism and energy, one of the reasons why when C pointed out today that I’m clearly not a US-bashing European, I agreed.


Baby-to-be was kicking a bit less these past few weeks, to the point at which I wondered if he’s ok. Then a couple of days ago the flutters began again, bringing smiles of delight and relief. And I wondered, how much of his character has been formed by now? Can babies have depressions in the womb, sink into a funk for a bit then pull themselves up again?


In London in December C was startled to see British ancestors watching him from sepia photographs in the bathroom. “How can I do what I need to do with them looking on?” he asked. Good point. Is a downstairs bathroom really the right place for them?

Sunday, January 17, 2010

New York missive no 64 - Self Reliance, Through the Children's Gate, The Road

A bit of Sunday philosophizing, while it rains a January rain outside…

Various things I’ve been reading recently have carried the message that one’s self is the only thing, the only belief, that a person can rely on. One of them is Emerson’s 1841 essay “Self reliance." It was included along with Obama’s inauguration address in a little blue book that CA gave us as an engagement present – apparently Emerson’s thinking is a big influence on Obama. In it, Emerson says things like “Nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of your own mind,” and “the great man is he who in the midst of the crowd keeps with perfect sweetness the independence of solitude.”

What a relief to think the truth lies right here inside me. But how scary too. What if “I” am wrong? (Though the answer to that would be that there is no right or wrong, just true and false, so that’s ok). More importantly, then, how does that “I" interact selflessly with others? Because aren’t most of the world’s problems a result of “I’s” interacting selfishly with others? How do you (I!) prevent self reliance and self awareness from becoming blind individualism? Perhaps it’s by knowing that what the self really needs and wants is a) not very much and b) not very different from what other people need and want.


Emerson’s essay also talks about how independent minds will contradict themselves, apparently changing positions. But, he says, “of one will, the actions will be harmonious, however unlike they seem. These varieties are lost sight of at a little distance…The voyage of the best ship is a zigzag line of a hundred tacks. See the line from a sufficient distance, and it straightens itself to the average tendency…” Zadie Smith picks up this idea in her new book of essays “Changing my mind,” in which she apparently (have only read a review) praises Obama’s “flexibility of voice." She says his example demonstrates that “each man must be true to his selves, plural.” That could be disconcerting, and even imply weakness, were it not read in the context of Emerson’s reassurance that apparently disparate ideas are solidly consistent if they flow from a mind (will, whatever) that is being totally true to itself. In politics though, can anyone remain true to themselves?


Other bits of reading recently, enabled in large part by aeroplane journeys (over the holiday) and subway journeys (to and fro work)...

Adam Gopnik’s "Through the Children’s Gate". Would I have picked that book up at the airport, a memoir about bringing up children in New York, were I not about to be doing just that? Albeit in rather different circumstances and for now in the singular rather than plural. The book is gently and entertainingly written with beautiful passages, such as the description of parents worrying how to “make the children fly” in a kindergarten production of Peter Pan. “The willingness of New York parents is bracing compared with the aloofness of French parents [Gopnik’s previous memoir is about his family’s time living in Paris], or even of earlier generations of American parents. They will do anything to make their children fly…” After much deliberation and consideration of potentially dangerous stunts, the solution is to shrink the city…to have a miniature night-time London on the stage that the children can swoop over.

What was portrayed too often in the book as “New York,” though, was just a slither of New York. A wealthy Upper East-Siders, “made-it”, literary New York. Which is all very well. The book is a personal memoir so was only meant to capture a microcosm (and who can capture any more than that in this city?). I just felt that the beating hearts and shrieks and laughs of kids being brought up all over New York in all different kinds of circumstances were muffled. As if there was a soundproof barrier between them and the comfortable lives described.

Cormack McCarthy’s "The Road", a rather less entertaining read. Ug. What is all the fuss about? The images, or more like image – man and boy travel down road through post-apocalyptic but still-threatening landscape that, oh my, will look great on a big screen – is powerful and has stayed with me. But the intentionally monotonous rhythm of the words lulled me into a numbness. I guess that numbness is McCarthy’s achievement. One stranger on the subway, a young guy with his girlfriend, saw me reading it and asked what I thought. I told him. “Oh really? My friend LOVED it and told me I HAVE to read it, that it was the most AWESOME book he'd ever read,” he said. And then a couple of days later a middle-aged woman sitting next to me said “Oh my God. You’re reading THAT. I couldn’t bear it. Do keep reading it though.” And I did.

And two self-helpsy new-yearsy books. For the New York Women Social Entrepreneurs bookclub I read Dave Pollard’s "Finding the Sweet Spot", about creating and nurturing sustainable enterprises. The key “take” from that was that the sweet spot (where you’ll be fulfilled in work) lies at the point where your “gifts,” (what you’re better at than most others), your “passion” (what inspires you) and “purpose” (what’s actually needed in the world), intersect. I’m not, for now, creating a social enterprise, but feel that if I make my book come off in the next couple of years I’ll be pretty close to that sweet spot, and to generating new ones. I’m also dipping into Eckhart Tolle’s "The Power of Now" which so many millions have read before me. How wise to let past and future dissolve and to live fully-present in the present, unencumbered by a chatting mind...now to put it into practice.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

New York missive no 63 - Lima, 10 years later

I spent a tranquil Sunday after Christmas wandering the quiet end-of-holiday streets of central Santiago, before getting a plane back to NYC that evening. In the Museo Chileno de Arte Precolombiana I came across a magnificent quipu, a complicated mass of threads and knots used by the Incas to store information about the empire – census data, weather conditions, the location of villages etc. It was fanned out in a dramatic circle for the purpose of the exhibit. Here’s what they look like. The precise meanings of those knots has yet to be deciphered, their significance lost along with the Incas themselves.

That quipu, the multicoloured Inca cloths called cumbi, and the huge geometrically designed weavings that C and I saw today at a MOMA exhibition on Bahaus, reminded me how I’m intrigued by thread as a material. In weavings, in clothes, in tapestries in quipu, wherever. One of the labels at the Bauhaus exhibition mentioned that the “inherent quality of materials” was central to the movement. What are the inherent qualities of thread? Ancient and practical come to mind…but then compared with wood and stone it’s not ancient at all. Human. Story-telling. Strong.


Earlier that day in Santiago I’d seen two kids playing by a fountain outside La Moneda. Children give us hope…I thought momentarily…and then they become adults. But determined not to succumb to cynicism I carried the thought through. Ok they become adults. But as children, they enable adults to see through a child’s mind again, which is no bad thing. Probably the key to sanity. And concern for their children’s future makes adults act far better than they would otherwise.


Back in Lima again after 10 years away. Last time I was there as a free-wheeling inquisitive 22 year-old. This time I was walking down the same streets as a 32-year-old soon-to-be-mother, acutely aware of the passing of time, how things change and don’t change. I decided to see if the woman whose house I lived in back in 1999 was still there (A, the mother of the poet Antonio Cisneros). We had lost touch several years ago. I passed the small Amnesty office where I used to work, crossed over to the familiar street, not remembering the exact house number but knowing I’d recognize it. A couple of blocks along I saw a huge new housing development, one of hundreds that are springing up all over Miraflores…that’s it, oh well, I thought, the house has gone. Then there it was, teetering on the edge of the new development. I peered through the window and everything was exactly the same. Dark wooden polished floors. A gold-rimmed mirror on one wall. Carefully-placed photographs of family members in frames on old furniture. One of AC’s grandchildren answered the doorbell when I rang and she brought AC to the door. She was older, so much older. Her memory was hazy and she only partly remembered me. But the wonderful thing was that she was there. Another thing that I found was still there was a small plate that I’d given to my friend AL’s mum before leaving. “Mira,” she said, and showed me the plate propped up in a display cabinet. Both those mothers seem to emanate security and keeping things in place. Eeek, can I have that in me?!


I was spoilt over Christmas, joining M and D on a boat around Cape Horn. On board we watched a feature documentary on Shackleton's second mission to the Antarctic. The mission failed in that he never accomplished his goal of crossing the continent. It succeeded in that he achieved his revised goal of keeping all his men alive. That was after the most staggering feats of endurance(which ironically is the name of the ship they’d had to abandon when it got trapped in the ice). Aside from wondering whether the equivalent group of people today could have survived what those men did, it made me think that human resilience to the cruelty of nature is so much stronger than our resilience to the cruelty of humans. What a strange, self-destructive species we are. What other species would conceive of things like concentration camps, gulags and torture?


What was going to be a very simple wedding – a quick trip to City Hall – has somewhat grown. We still want to keep it smallish and personal though. The first couple of evenings I was back C and I went hunting for a venue. There was the Foundry – a converted metal foundry that I’d thought could be a cool, wow-factor industrial space. It was dingy and disappointing. It felt like somewhere that is presented as a cool, wow-factor industrial space and has the prices to match but falls far short of actually being it. There was the Waters Edge, a restaurant on East River. It has impressive views of Manhattan but felt a bit like a wedding-factory and too tackily glitzy. And then there was the fabulous Seaman’s Church Institute near South Street Seaport, with its calm modern chapel, its gallery full of model ships and the “top deck” space for the party with glass walls overlooking Brooklyn Bridge. Venue found. Six weeks or so to fix everything else…nothing like a deadline.