Monday, December 31, 2012

New York missive no 124: On fallible online maps and the purchase of a globe

A friend recently described how she is in awe of Google maps for i-Phone. She had emerged from a subway stop in Manhattan, and unable to get her bearings flipped out the phone and checked her location on the map app. It promptly let her know she was walking in the wrong direction. I myself had been using Google Maps a lot recently – the online version – for a house hunt in Astoria (now temporarily put on hold). I would zoom in on a house for sale to get a feeling for the extent to which its real surroundings differed from those described by real estate agents.

Online maps can give a sense that they miss nothing. As Simon Garfield, author of the forthcoming book "On the Map: A Mind-Expanding Exploration of the Way the World Looks," said: “The uncertainty that was once an unavoidable part or our relationship with maps has been replaced by a false sense of Wi-Fi-enabled omnipotence.” His word “false” is key. Today’s maps may not be as prone to mistakes and omissions as the earliest ones, but they are no means free from them.

In November, a group of scientists set out on a boat to “Sandy Island”, about 1200 km off the coast of Australia. It appeared on several maps, including Google’s. When they arrived at the spot where it should have been, the island was not there. At first I wondered if that could be because of rising sea levels caused by climate change. It turns out that the island’s non-existence was likely the result of a different kind of human error.

A librarian at Aukland Museum (hooray for librarians!) found an early sea chart that implied the island was “discovered” by the whaling ship Velocity in 1876. The ship’s master had recorded “heavy breakers” and “sandy islets” in the area. The librarian, Shaun Higgins, believes that over time mapmakers may have started to consider those as a landmass. The sea chart had included a sensible disclaimer: “Caution is necessary while navigating among the low lying islands of the Pacific Ocean. The general details have been collated from the voyages of various navigators extending over a long series of years. The relative position of many dangers may therefore not be exactly given.” (That wonderful last sentence could apply to so many things beyond a map.)

I recently encountered the fallibility of online maps much closer to home. I wanted to get the name of the store at 34-03 30th Avenue in Astoria. Given my 30th Avenue blog, Alfred Holzman, who grew up along the Avenue in the 1940s and 50s invited me to a reunion lunch he had organized with 23 of his primary and junior school classmates, all now in their seventies. His Slovakia-born parents had run a paint and decorating store at 34-03, and the family lived above it.

When it came to writing up the story I wanted to include that detail, as well as what the store is now. I remembered it is a printing store but had not checked the name the last time I walked past. I lazily used Google Maps’ street view feature to get the name. “Prime Design & Printing |Prime Brokerage”, the image of the store sign on my screen read, and that is what I wrote. The next day I walked past and saw that it is now called simply, “Prime Design & Printing”. A minor change, but I corrected the story.

The two places – Sandy Island and Prime Design & Printing – are reminders that online maps, with all the sophistication of features like satellite imagery, give the illusion of presenting current reality while in fact they do not. Nothing is a substitute for being physically present in a place. Hopefully nothing ever will be.

That said, I did still buy an outdated globe the other day. My fascination with maps is still in tact. After all, it is their limitations and flaws that make them interesting, a bit like people. I was walking back from the 30th Avenue subway station to pick up six month-old CMH from his daycare. As always I was rushing to make sure I was there by six o’clock. I passed the store “Old Village Thrift, Gift and Antiques”, whose owner Sami Mobarak had been one of my 30th Avenue interviewees. Perched at the back of the cluttered table outside the store I glimpsed the globe. I asked Sami’s wife how much it cost and she told me $15. I said I would probably be back to fetch it the next day - I was in a hurry and carrying a lot of stuff. A few paces further along I found myself turning back to buy it. I was excited about giving it to JNH (now two and a half), and worried that someone might snap it up before me.

It reminded me of when my paternal grandfather turned up at our house one Christmas with a big box. I was about eight or nine. He told my sister and me that it had a monkey inside. I remember distinctly the feeling of disbelief combined with a glimmer of hope that maybe, just maybe, he meant it, and there really was a monkey inside. My heart beat a bit faster as we opened the box. And it sunk with disappointment when we pulled out a globe, even though it was the kind that lit up when you plugged it in.

Over time the globe grew on me, as the excitement about the monkey-that-wasn’t waned. My childhood friend E and I spun it around to choose a place to “travel” to in our games, taking colored candies along as our malaria tablets. When I was old enough, my real globe-trotting tendencies kicked in. I wanted to feel the places on maps in the flesh, albeit becoming increasingly aware that passing through somewhere does not provide a taste of living there. There is a certain sameness to experiencing different places as an outsider.

JNH is delighted with his globe. He calls it his “gloobe", for some reason. He is learning to point out where he lives – New York – and where his grandparents and aunts live, scattered as they are between the UK, Switzerland, Florida and Dominican Republic. There may come a day when he asks what that big green country labeled “Union of Soviet Socialist Republics” is. Or why South Sudan does not feature. That will present a good excuse for a history lesson: on how the way things are portrayed is not what they are. And on how the way things are one day, they may not be the next.

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

New York missive no 123: Re-creation of Christmas memories, and two offline times

The week before Christmas. People were buying more than usual: not only more things, but bigger quantities. That was evident in 30th Avenue’s Trade Fair supermarket the other day, when the guy in front of me bought 20 bunches of cilantro (total $15). Up the road in International Meat Market, where despite there being plenty of other butchers along the street everyone goes and endures the consequent long queues, a woman called April who seemed to know everybody bought eight huge marrow bones to turn into stock.

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Christmas, it seems, is about trying to re-create the best elements from your childhood experience of it, finding they turn out differently, and then realizing that’s the whole point.

Our Christmas so far has included a mix of things from my childhood and from C’s. On Christmas eve, we ate pernil – Dominican-style roasted pork – that C had marinated for a day and half beforehand in garlic and spices: the result, juicy and delicious, served up with rice, beans and plantains.

Then this morning, after JNH and CMH (with the former’s help) had dug Santa-delivered presents out of the the army socks that my grandfather had worn in World War II and that my sister and I had always used as our Christmas stockings, we had a britishy brunch of scrambled egg and smoked salmon on brown bread (washed down with a glass of champagne), albeit to the accompaniment of Merengue.

Right now, while JNH and CMH are very rarely both asleep at the same time and C is out at a basketball game, I've turned on BBC World service. (I should be catching up on sleep myself, but there's always that trade-off between using those quiet moments for valuable "me"-time or loosing them to much-needed sleep).

We’re spending the afternoon at L and A’s place near Central Park, with a bunch of others. There, no doubt, will be traces of their Armenian and French upbringings mixed into the proceedings.

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Recently we’ve had two five-day periods without internet and cable TV access. Not because of hurricane Sandy, but because trucks from the construction site opposite had sliced through the cables that run from our home to the other side. Here in Astoria pretty much all the communications and power cables are above ground, with the resulting tangled messes, and tied-together pairs of shoes caught up in them, flung by party goers on their ways home.

Being offline had the combined effect of freedom and isolation. Without emails to check, websites to surf, online videos for JNH, TV to watch, we had to speak to each other! And found plenty of ways to entertain ourselves, as well as ways around the supposed information-deficit. I bought a newspaper. When we couldn’t access our online music lockbox, we played CDs. I even proposed to C that we have a self-imposed offline day each week from now on, which didn’t go down well. And of course as soon as we got hooked up again, on went the gadgets and consumed our attention, as if we were glugging a relieved drink after passing through a media desert. (Which anyway had not been the case, as we’d both been online at work during the days).

The fact the cut off was the result of a fallen cable is a reminder of the physicality of cyberspace. With features like “cloud computing” it’s easy to think that the internet is intangible and consequently has a light environmental footprint. Of course that couldn’t be further from the case, as this NYT article “Power, Pollution and the Internet” makes clear.

Friday, November 2, 2012

New York missive no 122 - post-Sandy haircuts and more

Both C and JNH had post-hurricane Sandy haircuts. And our neighbors gave the shrubs in the front and back garden their fall pruning, wrapping the chopped parts up in black plastic sacks. As if to say after the storm, let’s straighten things out, restore some order. (Albeit to unruly hair or gardens).

Of course, that doesn’t stop everything from feeling out of sync and fragile. Western Queens got off very lightly compared to other parts of the city. Some lost power (our block was lucky and had power throughout) and trees came down here and there but there was nothing like the major flooding and widespread power outages of elsewhere. Nor, of course, the horrendous fire that ripped through 100 homes in Breezy Point. Nonetheless there are plenty of signs of lingering disruption.

When we called our local cab firm to book a cab to take my parents to the airport (they’d got stuck for a couple of extra days), the man at the end of the line laughed. He said their firm had no cabs available and he didn’t know of any that did. The disrupted subway system and limits on private cars driving into the city has flooded the taxi companies with demand. (In the end I nabbed a limo driver from under the subway tracks at 30th Avenue, who jumped up the price because of the lack of gas).

Yesterday when C and I went into my branch of Alma Bank we were seen by a woman who had relocated temporarily from the Ditmars branch, given it was out of power and therefore closed. The queues at the supermarket are long, because people are stocking back up on provisions and because the credit card machines are running sluggishly so each plastic transaction takes a long time. In the butcher's shop, I felt surprised relief to find our Friday night pepper-and-blue-cheese burgers were in stock. "I appreciate it more than usual," I said to the guy who works there, "when places have things I’d expect them to have." "Tell me about it," he replied.

It seems that finally some politicians and media outlets are acknowledging that our recent crazy weather patterns are caused by climate change and there may be more to come. Governor Cuomo said after the storm: “[P]art of learning from this is the recognition that climate change is a reality, extreme weather is a reality, it is a reality that we are vulnerable.” Bloomberg Businessweeks’ cover story headlined, “It’s Global Warming, Stupid."

It’s ironic that as a result of storms like Sandy people are compelled to take the kind of actions that environmentalists have been saying for ages we should take to prevent them. Like sharing cars, taking public transport (such as is available), turning off the lights, minimising flying. As with environmental damage in all parts of the world, it's people with the least resources and who have contributed least to the cause who tend to get hit hardest. And who are likely to be overlooked by measures to mitigate impacts.

It’s a shame it has to take such a major shake-up of one of the world’s richest cities to wake the world’s richest country up to climate change but let’s hope this has been a wakeup call – and not one immediately followed by another hit of the snooze button.

Monday, October 8, 2012

New York missive no 121 - Glacial erratics

In a book about New York's East River I encountered the fabulous term “glacial erratic”. A glacial erratic is a boulder transported by a moving sheet of ice and then left when the ice melts, surrounded by geology different from itself.

The book begins with images and drawings of the East River (which is actually a tidal strait) before it was riddled with human influence. Such as a 1777 view northeast from a scraggy hilltop in what is now Central Park, looking across the expansive “Harlem Plain” to Wards and Randalls Islands. And an early 20th Century photograph of rocky coastline at East Elmhurst, which now lies under the Grand Central Parkway. That photo's caption reads: “By the 1930s, this highway...permanently walled the community from waterfront access except for a narrow, noisy strip of sidewalk.”

Our treatment of the East River has swung between respect and abuse. I won’t be surprised if some day she says that she has had enough and tries to kick us out for good. Native Americans and then the early settlers depended on her for food and transport. With the city's industrialization we clogged up the creeks that fed her – the tidal basin of Flushing Creek became Corona Dumps for example – and turned our backs on her, lining her banks with freeways and runways.

Now there’s an effort to get her back. Mayor Bloomberg has a “Vision 2020” to re-connect New Yorkers to the waterfront. ("Expand Public Access" is the plan’s first goal, but it will be access of a certain kind I’m sure, involving plenty of re-zoning to allow for the construction of towering apartment buildings à la Long Island City).

I wonder what the river will make of this change of heart? The last of the plan's eight goals is "increase climate resilience". That may not be enough to prevent the gleaming new riverside developments from being battered by storms and ultimately swept away by rising tides.

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EWINY posts may become a bit more sporadic for a while. I'm back to work tomorrow after four months of maternity leave. I've also decided I need to use the precious hour that I have here and there for writing to finish something I'm working on, rather than babble away here!

Monday, September 24, 2012

New York missive 120 - Limits of language, the Staten Island ferry & Stone Street Oyster Festival

Reading a simple story book with JNH the other day I was reminded about the wonder of language. How images in a cave have evolved into sentences on a page (whether paper or electronic). How a combination of letters in a children’s book can spell the word BUTTERFLY, which means butterfly, which gets the child reader thinking of butterflies and remembering butterflies he has seen. Those butterflies may be red, they may be white. Were the butterflies in JNH's mind flying, or sunning themselves on a brick wall?

Language creates worlds and is full of potential. And yet...it is so limited. For people who speak languages that use the roman alphabet, all we have is those 26 shapes and combinations of them to communicate. People speaking other languages are similarly restricted by their alphabets. (For linguistic communication, that is – the spectrum of communication forms that are not part of language, like facial expressions, gestures etc., may account for more than language).

The way to come to terms with it perhaps is to see that restriction as part of its effectiveness. Just as the French Oulipo (“Ouvroir de Littérature Potentielle”) writers saw imposed constraints – such as writing without a particular letter – as opening up expressive potential, so language itself could be seen as a constraint that does just that.

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From Astoria Park, JNH saw boats sailing and motoring up East River. He requested to go on one, in the way that two year olds do: "I want to go on a boat." More an announcement than a request. During the week afterwards, he would add, "a sailing boat," followed by a serious nod. I explained that sailing boats are lots of fun but are hard to come by. I said that what we could do though, is go on a big orange boat, aka the Staten Island ferry.

So on Saturday we found ourselves emerging from the Whitehall / South Ferry subway stop to get on the ferry. The station has recently been revamped at a cost of $530 million. But on the R platform there are still traces of the old mosaic frieze showing the nearby Customs House, along the top of the wall.

On the ferry I had that feeling of relief at the expanse of a bay. The dramatic meeting of a city and the sea is invariably inspirational. Of course being on the Staten Island ferry ain’t the same as being close to the water on a sail boat. The ferry's bulk and the press of fellow passengers, a mix of Staten Island residents and camera-wielding tourists, intervene. Maybe it’s a more appropriate way to experience this particular bay though. After all, the poem on the Statue of Liberty's pedestal welcomes the “huddled masses”.

After the return trip we hunted for somewhere to have lunch. That’s no mean feat in the Wall Street area at the weekends. We passed plenty of closed places and the occasional un-enticing sandwich shop. Then we serendipitously stumbled upon the annual Stone Street Oyster Festival. By that time JNH and CMH were asleep so we could enjoy pulled pork mac n’ cheese (yes both together, sounds strange but was delicious) and a pint of Guinness at a sidewalk table in peace.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Queens' literary scene may be small but it's growing

Brooklyn’s massive book festival is underway this weekend, which is just one aspect of its thriving literary scene. Hundreds of writers have made and still make Brooklyn their home. Meanwhile reams have been written about Manhattan and by its inhabitants. There’s plenty of material for the “literary map” of that borough. It begs the question, what about Queens? It barely features on the literary landscape. For now, that is.

Few well-known writers live in Queens, and few books are set here. The Wikipedia category for “Queens, New York City in fiction” has just five entries (Manhattan 35, Brooklyn 25). Of course that is by no means comprehensive, but it is indicative. There are various potential reasons for this. Among them are history, aesthetics, the postal system (yes), a working class culture, and languages.

As Evan Hughes says in his 2011 book Literary Brooklyn, in that borough “the story of the place is legible and ‘a feeling for tradition persists’" (quoting Carson McCullers, writing about Brooklyn in the forties). He then quotes L.J. Davis who says that on many Brooklyn streets “the 19th-century city is surprisingly intact and, in parts, it is unusually handsome…Writers seldom live where it is ugly, if they have any choice in the matter.” Queens is not, on the surface of things, steeped in history nor beauty.

In 1830 it was still rural, with a population of under 10,000. By then Manhattan had become the largest city in the Western hemisphere and Brooklyn was a major city in its own right too. Queens' development stepped up as railroads arrived, factories opened, and it became identified as a destination for the juxtaposed purposes of urban recreation and burial grounds. However it was only after the consolidation of New York’s five boroughs into one city in 1898 and the arrival of the subway system soon after, that its development really took off.

In reality, Queens is hardly history-free. You just have to dig deeper and look harder to get it. Some of its roads still follow the routes of the trails used by Native Americans before the Dutch arrived. The 1657 “Flushing Remonstrance” that granted Quakers freedom to practice their faith is seen as an important precursor to the first amendment to the Constitution in the Bill of Rights. The waves of immigration into the borough, and its workplaces ranging from factories, to power stations, to family-owned stores, contain no end of material for writers.

Then there’s appearance. Queens' landscape is, for the most part, one of haphazard functionality. An anthology of writing by Queens-based writers that came out in 2011 is tellingly called Forgotten Borough – Writers Come to Terms With Queens. Its Queens-born editor Nicole Steinberg says in her introduction, “It’s not the prettiest borough; upon first glance, not the most memorable.” Personally, give me a rail yard, an auto repair shop, a cemetery, an expressway, an Irish pub, a Buddhist temple or a Colombian bakery to write about any day over a sparkling skyscraper or sedate brownstone, though not all would agree. (Manhattan and Brooklyn, I know I’m generalizing here).

Queens is not “on the map” in people’s minds in a much more literal way too. The US Postal Service does not recognize it as a location. Addresses of places in Queens instead use the name of one of five main towns within the borough – Long Island City, Jamaica, Flushing, Far Rockaway and Floral Park, or sometimes the neighborhood name like Astoria or Jackson Heights. As Kenneth T. Jackson points out in his introduction to The Neighborhoods of Queens, this means that Queens is “not really a place in the usual American sense.” He adds that Queens’ sports teams do not reflect Queens in their name (the New York Mets for example), nor do the two major airports that are located there, John F. Kennedy International and La Guardia.

Another factor is Queens' working and middle class culture. Most of its inhabitants have been and still are people who work too hard to have time to write about their lives. That in itself makes the neighborhood story-rich. Invariably there is more to their stories, than the stories of people who think that their lives are interesting and have plenty of time in which to write about them.

And there are languages. One hundred and thirty-eight languages are spoken within Queens' boundaries. Fifty-six percent of its population speaks a language other than English at home. (More demographics via Queens in Context, here). That means, of course, that thinking about Queens writing has to mean thinking about writing in many languages. How wonderful it would be one day for a novel to be written using all of the languages spoken here. (Any suggestions for how to go about doing that are welcome!).

All that said, there are signs that Queens’ literary life is consolidating and growing. There are the writers featured in the anthology mentioned above, Forgotten Borough. Later this year a new literary journal, Newtown Literary, will launch – it will emphasize writing about Queens and by Queens based writers. (It also welcomes writing from elsewhere: as its website states, “Queens is just as much a state of mind as it is a geographic boundary”).

In Astoria, the closure of one much-loved bookstore, Seaburn Books on Broadway, was swiftly followed by the news of plans for a new independent bookstore, the Astoria Bookshop. Queens Library, thankfully just rescued from major potential budget cuts, is the largest in the US by circulation. The recent book Pax Ethnica - Where and How Diversity Succeeds credits it for playing an important role in making diversity work so well in the borough.

And Queens Council on the Arts has a program called QUILL, “Queens in Love with Literature.” It is a forum for Queens writers who are committed to translation, and offers people in Queens “the opportunity not only to hear from authors working in their own neighborhood, but also perhaps in their own language.”

Queens’ literary scene may be small but it’s growing. Hopefully it will remain uniquely Queens in character.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

NY missive 119: In praise of the carefully-chosen fragment

In “Essay as Hack”, writer Ander Monson says: “I believe in the fragment. It’s the most honest representation of anything. It acknowledges gaps, its lack of comprehensiveness, its ability to surround and control a subject, an idea.”

I’ve been thinking about fragments recently. Fragments in writing and fragments in life. They are perhaps all we have for knowing and for conveying reality. Yet their importance is so often overlooked in an effort to universalize, to set the big picture, work threads together into a conclusion. Perhaps we should pay more attention to the process of selecting fragments. There is a responsibility inherent in seeking them out, choosing which to linger on and which to pass by.

Fragments can be so many things of course: an image, an action. Or a voice in the crowd. Salman Rushdie recently shared in the New Yorker (extracted from his new memoir) a valuable piece of advice from the professor who taught him at Cambridge, Arthur Hibbert: “You must never write history until you can hear the people speak.”

I’m reading Colum McCann’s “Let the Great World Spin.” The writing is beautiful in many ways. It has a strong rhythm: mostly really short sentences while occasionally launching into a rolling long one. And he is a master of individual voices, whether those of the various narrators or voices that make a brief appearance. McCann has himself apparently described his work as “an accumulation of voices.” The opening scene describes the onlooking crowd’s reaction to the beginning of Philipe Petit’s walk on a tightrope between the Twin Towers (though Petit isn’t named). A pulsating page-long sentence ends like this:

“…and the whole August morning was blown wide open, and the watchers stood rooted, there was no going anywhere for a while, the voices rose to a crescendo, all sorts of accents, a babel until a small redheaded man in the Home Title Guarantee Company on Church Street lifted the sash of his office window, placed his elbows on the sill, took a deep breath, leaned out, and roared into the distance: Do it, asshole!”

Communicating, and particularly writing, is a process of selecting fragments, whether we like it or not. There is something tragic in the fact that we can never grasp an entirety despite our claims to do so. Even those closest to us, we only know fragments of what is going on in their minds, can only know them partially. But so be it. Our memories, and perhaps you could even say our lives, are composed of fragments. So all the more reason to pay close attention to them: watching, listening, retaining. Some just fall by the wayside, some we cling onto. Others get buried in deep pockets to be rediscovered.

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In this interview with Colum McCann when he won the 2009 National Book Award, he's asked how he went "about evoking a landscape that would imbue the book with such power and resonance". He replies:

"The place was made for me already. New York is such a vibrant place to write about. Eight million stories colliding all at once. And what a landscape to operate in. The eye never gets tired. Even the garbage can be acrobatic. So I just look for the language that will reflect that. Our language is so deeply influenced by landscape, and vice versa. But mostly for me it has to do with rhythm and sound. As a writer you have to try to find the music of that place. If it’s the west of Ireland it’s a different music to what it is in New York. So I went out and listened to the different instruments that the city plays".

And while I'm gleaning from that interview, there's this, too:

"...my first lesson to my students is that I can’t teach them anything at all. They look a little stunned at first, but then I tell them that it’s all about desire, stamina and perseverance, and if they have that, it will feed their innate talent. And I also tell them to try to write outside of themselves. It is my philosophy that we shouldn’t write what we know. That’s boring and ordinary. Rather, we should write towards what we want to know."

Saturday, September 15, 2012

NY missive no 118 - A transparent plastic Buddha and a Flushing walk

There is a transparent plastic Buddha in the East River, floating just off the shore of Socrates Sculpture Park. It is called Floating Echo by Chang-Jin Lee, and is perhaps the most striking of many striking sculptures in the 2012 Emerging Artists Fellowship Exhibition. I had seen it yesterday from halfway across the river when I stood by the lighthouse on Governors Island. From that distance I wondered what it was. It appeared to be a strange shimmering buoy. This morning I saw it up close from the park. The Buddha’s head bobbed forward and back, gently, with the ripple of the water. As if she was laughing or bowing. The low morning sun flashed a vertical silver streak down her left hand side. It was echoed by the horizontal silver streak of the cars whizzing along FDR Drive in Manhattan on the far bank of the river.

(Written on 12 Sep)

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I’m in the last month of my maternity leave with CMH. It can be divided up into four month-long chapters. The first three were: post-natal weeks when Mum was staying (the chaotic and humbling delight of being in the presence of a brand-new-born); then the four of us, as in C, JNH, CMH and I hanging out as a family in Astoria’s summer heat (many pizza slices and ice-creams, playground sprinklers, and JNH practicing riding his new scooter); then London (pints in pubs in Greenwich, new AirLine cable car over the Thames, witnessing a pig race etc). Now during this last month, I’m alone with CMH on the weekdays as C is back teaching at La Guardia and JNH is at his Montessori.

We’re having some blissful city strolls. Each day feels precious and complete. To an extent I’m free to determine their rhythm, choosing which paths to take. Yet CMH also has a say, in that when he wakes up from a sleep I’ll stop to feed him or liberate him for a while from stroller or papoose – we’ll pause to absorb the environment wherever that may be. And I seek out parks and other quiet shady spaces more than I would otherwise.

Last Thursday we went to Flushing. I could tell the story of my time in NYC through visits to Flushing but that’s for another time. We got out of the 7 train at the 111th Street stop in Corona and walked a few blocks East to Flushing Meadows Corona Park. We skirted around the edge of the New York Hall of Science and the birdhouse of Queens Zoo, where through black railings, the curved glass and white metal frame of their enclosure and some dense foliage I glimpsed a scarlet macaw, preening itself. We crossed the roaring Grand Central Parkway on a narrow pedestrian bridge and walked towards Queens Museum.

A group of young people were gardening in a rectangular rose bed. One, who looked latino, said hello to us, and then when I asked more specifics about their work he replied by asking where my accent was from. When I said London, England, he said the usual “that’s awesome” (I never know why), and “I have a friend from Birmingham” (it’s not always Birmingham, but most people have an English friend they refer to). I’ve been here almost exactly five years now. So it takes me aback when people ask where my accent’s from. There are plenty of New Yorkers who don’t have a New York accent. Now I tend to tag “but I live here now” on my answer. The volunteer said that he’s originally from Arizona, and that the group do service in the park every Wednesday, and with that CMH and I went on our way.

In front of us was the unisphere. It is an enormous steel globe that was donated by US Steel to the 1964 World Fair. It has come to be a symbol of Queens, appearing on maps of the borough and in the opening credits to coverage of the US Open tennis (which happened to be underway at the stadiums right next to the park). This was the first time I had seen the unisphere with its fountains working. Big vertical jets of water formed a circle around it, shifting in height from low to high and back again. A woman was doing tai-chi type exercises. She seemed to be conducting the fountains.

Suddenly with a swoosh the fountains stopped. Their roar, which I hadn’t really noticed before as I was so struck by seeing them, was silenced. I stood still and listened to the sounds that emerged in their space. There were cicadas. Birds calling, one (perched on a dormant floodlight) with a regular shrill single cry. People talking on their cell phones. A lawn mower at work. The hum of cars on the close but unseen expressway. A light crunch of passing bicycle wheels. Footsteps. A cough. Cranking, as two men got to work fixing something on the fountains, which presumably was why they had been turned off.

I was reminded of an article I had read recently on soundscapes, by Bernie Krause. They can be used to measure the health of a habitat. For example the effect of even minimal logging activity in an old growth forest can reduce a cacocphany of sound produced by a wide range of species to the much thinner sound of just a few. A soundscape, Krause said, has three basic sources: the geophony (non biological natural sounds, like wind or waves); the biophony (sounds of animals other than humans); and the anthrophony (man-made).

In this case, we were in a city and the sounds were predominantly anthropomorphic. But at least, I thought, there were many of them. And at least, in the form of the bird and the lawn-mower, there were signs of nature-other-than-man surviving, and of man making an effort to ensure that.

I had intended to go to Queens Museum to see an exhibition on Caribbean art. But it turned out that the museum doesn’t open till midday and it was only 10 o’clock. So instead, after a pause to feed CMH on a bench, during which the flow of people headed towards the tennis tournament thickened, we crossed through the park towards Flushing.

We emerged onto College Point Boulevard a few blocks South of Flushing center. (Another Boulevard, in all its pedestrian unfriendliness). By this time I needed to pee. “Kane’s Diner” beckoned from the other side of the road. I went in, intending just to use the bathroom, but when one of the waiters greeted us with a smile and a “sit anywhere you like” I decided to stay for a late breakfast/early lunch. In fact there was just one booth free, so I took it, and CMH lay on the pleather-cushioned bench beside me, studying for much of the time the bottles of sauces gathered at the end of our table. The plastic-backed menu was an overwelmigngly dense collage of photographs of the food, with pictures of prominent republicans who had dined there worked in (Trump and Guliani both featured).

At another recent diner-visit, to Court Diner in Long Island City, I’d been thinking that what works about diner food is by no means the individual ingredients, but the combination of them – the fact you don’t just get an omlette, but an omlette with loads of stuff stuffed into it and potatoes and brown toast on the side and ketchup or brown sauce or both to go on top. And coffee refills. And the familiar diner decor and atmosphere of course.

Off we went again along the Boulevard, which is dominated by tile, bath and kitchen cabinet shops with the occasional anomaly like “Hisun LED”. Its lobby, aflame with neon, looked like that of a hotel from outer space. We hit the town center by “Bland Houses” housing project. I was thinking what an unfortunate name that was, when it was contradicted by a small, bright gardening plot by one of the entrances with a hand-painted sign, “the garden of life after death.” We went up Roosevelt Avenue to Main street and wandered into a few places along the way: swish, tempting Iris Tea and Bakery; St George’s Episcopal church, in which a helium balloon had got trapped on one of the helicopter-fans right up near the roof to be spun around and around; a boutiquey-shopping center connected to Flushing’s Sheraton hotel; and a Chinese food market on the corner of 41st Avenue and Main where the seething fish counter featured a tank of fat Baramudi fish crammed so tight they hardly had room to move.

It was time for a rest and more milk for CMH at Flushing library. Queens Library has just been saved from a massive potential city budget cut, after a passionate campaign to prevent it. As some pointed out, the library system is one of the things that make hyperdiversity work so well in the borough. Then it was back on the 7 train to Queensboro’ Plaza and the N up home to Astoria, wrapping up a day of the city delivering unpredictable delights. Since then we’ve been on wanderings in Roosevelt Island, Chinatown and the LowerEast Side, and Coney Island (the latter along with C and JNH at a weekend)...hopefully more on those anon.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

New York missive no 117 - Crossing Sunnyside Yard in the rain

Yesterday I walked with CNH down through Astoria and Sunnyside to the 40th street stop on the 7 line. We were meeting C there, to go to have lunch at the Thai restaurant SriPraPhai in Woodside. It’s one of the few locations that pulls Manhattanites and Brooklynites to Queens – as well as drawing a big local crowd.

It was a humid day. Rain fell at times, either in a torrent or a drizzle but never enough to lift the humidity. You could see it shifting about in patches in the sky as if debating when and where to descend. It was falling as I reached the bottom of Steinway Street and embarked onto the 39th Street overpass.

The overpass is a concrete swish over Sunnyside Yard, where trains, tracks, cables and diggers make a tangled nest. The sidewalks on the overpass are narrow enough to make pedestrians feel, not quite threatened, but vulnerable, especially if pushing a stroller as I was.

On the left as you walk South is a high mesh fence that prefaces a view of the yards. On the right is another mesh fence, prefacing a view West to Manhattan. Yesterday the Manhattan skyline had shed its alluring sparkle for an even dark gray, leaving much to the imagination.

Despite the weather I was upbeat. Or was it because of the weather? There’s something wild and cleansing about a wet day, especially when it follows the glare of Summer. I was intensely conscious of time. Three years before, I had walked in the opposite direction over that overpass with C and his sister D to get beers at Astoria’s Studio Square, just pregnant with JNH but not yet aware I was. Here I was walking on the pass again with JNH’s little brother.

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Work dominates the geography of Queens (auto repair shops rub shoulders with taxi depots rub shoulders with mom-and-pop shops) while play dominates Manhattan’s.

Saturday, September 1, 2012

New York missive no 116 - Slowing down

An art project by Robert Wilson in Norfolk is called “Walking”. It’s about slowing down. Participants walk along a three-mile path on a beach and are asked to take three hours to do so. They pass installations, including a narrow tunnel where recordings of the stridulations of crickets are played. The sound is slowed down by the same ratio as a cricket’s life to a human’s, that’s to say around 21 days to 70 years. UK times journalist Bryan Appleyard, who did the walk with Wilson, says that what emerges is the “sound of angels”, adding, “There is a bass drone combined with soaring waves of superhuman strangeness and purity.” If there is one theme that runs through Wilson’s work, he says, it is to “Slow down, slow everything down, hear the real music.”

Some of the most memorable times are the slow ones. I’ve found that in among the chaos and distraction of being with small children there are also unpredictable slow times, so slow they are almost still. With kids the world inevitably narrows, but also focuses. We’ve spent the last three weeks with Mum and Dad in London. One day, two month-old CMH was lying on his mat in the garden and starting to get restless. Then he saw something in the sky and his gaze relaxed. I looked up and it was a bright, large cloud drifting. I lay down next to him and together we stayed still for a while, watching whispy cloud formations pass over us.

There was also the time at Brixton tube station. C and I had a morning with just CMH – while JNH stayed with his grandmother “gaggie”. We went to Brixton to wander and have lunch. CMH got hungry on the tube soon before we reached the stop, so when we got out we sat on one of the benches on the station platform while I fed him. Four or five trains came and went while we were there – coming from one direction and then going back in the same one, sometimes with a change of drivers, given it was the last stop on the line. We both read our books, savoring the enforced still time. C’s reading My Struggle by Karl Ove Knausgaard, translated from Norwegian. And I’m reading Teju Cole’s Open City.

What a discovery. Julius, the Nigerian narrator, goes on walks around New York City which trigger thoughts, recollections and discoveries. From the start, the reader can’t help but care deeply about him. I think that’s because of his direct engagement with his surroundings. There’s a borderless ebb and flow between Julius’ mind and the stimulations of the streets he walks. As Rebecca Solnit said in her book Wanderlust “Walking, ideally, is a state in which the mind, the body, and the world are aligned.” That is certainly the case here. Julius' walks become a form of liberation.

New York missive no 115 - What’s the point in a bunch of cilantro that does not smell of anything?

That’s what I thought when I picked up a bunch of cilantro that didn’t smell of anything, at our local supermarket. Bemoaning the tasteless (which goes with smell-less) food that results from its mass-industrialized production is nothing new. But there are some moments when it really strikes you and this was one of them. On the same supermarket trip I was disheartened by the lifeless lettuces and the huge bunches of equally-sized bananas that looked perfectly yellow and firm but that I knew would be brown and fluffy within a day or two of bringing them home. (This New Yorker article provides a detailed trajectory of how the Cavendish banana came to monopolise the market, for those interested).

I compared those food products with others that I have had recently, foods that did taste and smell of something. What a difference. For example the fish we ate at a beachside shack in Las Galeras, on the Samaná Peninsula in the Dominican Republic this Christmas – on a weekend getaway while visiting tía D in Santo Domingo. Straight out of the sea and then skillfully prepared by the women who worked there it was delicious, and made me wonder if the tilapia and salmon we get from our fishmonger in Queens has anything to do with fish at all by the time it reaches our plates. There were the orange cherry tomatoes picked from the plants in our shared backyard. And there was thick ham in the paninis I bought from Il Bambino on Astoria’s 31st Ave: one of the many newish places in the neighborhood that prides itself on ingredients.

Not that on a budget it’s possible to avoid tasteless mass-produced food all the time. What to do then? At a structural level, there's challenging big agribusiness’ influence in the political system. On a day-to-day consumption level, there's seeking out food close to its source with minimal interventions having taking place in-between, and savoring the times you find it. Where possible, it also means growing your own, whether in backyard, windowbox or allotment, or by indulging in a little guerilla gardening.

Friday, August 3, 2012

New York missive no 114 - Old Navy on Northern Boulevard and an encounter with a fellow shopper

Part of a graffitied mural on 48th Street with Northern Boulevard

On Northern Boulevard in Queens, at its intersection with 34th Avenue and 49th Street, is a shopping center featuring a warehouse-style Old Navy (and not a great deal else). I went there yesterday morning, with CMH in his stroller. I had found myself once again post-pregnancy with practically zero summer clothes that I could wear and almost zero time to buy new ones.

Some of the online reviews of the store are not kind. One on Yelp says: “Imagine if Godzilla took a liking to eating clothing instead of humans. Then, imagine if the clothing Godzilla drank too much the night before and couldn't find a toilet/trash can, but found this Old Navy to puke in.” Others include snooty comments like, “This is a ‘must skip’” and “Pretty ghetto.”

But for this trip it was just what I needed. I walked fast through the hot Astoria streets to get there. The white muslin sheet I had draped over CMH’s stroller to keep the sun off flapped with the movement, so that from a distance it probably looked like some kind of desert apparition. We just made it over the Boulevard during the time the pedestrian crossing sign said walk: big boulevards anywhere, but especially those in Queens, are hostile to people who are not in cars.

Once inside the store CMH was making waking-up signs. I rushed around the haphazard clothing rails and piled potential purchases on top of his stroller. So far the good thing about the store was that it was far emptier than any you’d find in Manhattan so I could whizz round easily. And once in the changing rooms, the fact that each cubicle was large (so that when CMH did wake up crying I could comfortably sit down and nurse him), that the woman working there was relaxed and understanding, and that there weren’t queues of people lined up wanting to try things on all worked in my favor. I emerged better equipped, with three new pairs of pants and five tops. That kind of buying-in bulk normally nauseates me. But sometimes it’s just the easiest way to go - there are always buts to explain unethical purchasing practices, often related to convenience and even more often to price.

As I had been going around picking items to try on, a woman who was also shopping said, “my son’s a teenager now, but I remember doing that.” I wasn’t sure if she was just referring to shopping with a baby in tow, or the way I put the clothes on top of the stroller. She went on to ask if I had other kids and I told her I have a two-year-old too.

“My sisters and brothers, they had two or three kids, all of them. I had cancer when I had my son, so never had more."

Stalling a little from being plunged into her story (something I should be entirely used to by now), I replied along the lines of, “I’m glad you were able to have one.”

"Well, it is what it is,” she replied.

Monday, July 30, 2012

NY missive no 113 - Mosquitoes and fireflies

During the first few weeks of JNH’s life his look was mainly one of wide-eyed bring-it-on acceptance. He was curious but also seemed trusting as if to say “ah, so this is the world. That’s fine by me, lemme at it.”

So far CMH’s look is more wisely-wary. As if to say “ah, so this is the world. Let’s reserve judgement.” Of course that approach may be influenced by the fact that he’s well aware there is a big brother already here and that he is already competing for – or I should say sharing – his parents’ love and attention.

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This has been a hot Summer so far in NYC. With the heat come mosquitoes. They're one thing in the garden with its unkempt grass, but in the bedroom they're quite another, I’d say unacceptable, the way that despite a screen designed to prevent them they interrupt with their whirring and persistent stings the place where you hope to be most at peace. Poor CMH woke up this morning with bites on his tiny arms and forehead.

I have a bad habit of scratching the bites on my legs which makes them last longer as red marks. That makes me feel particularly Englishwoman-in-New-York-y in the sense of not tolerating the climate, and it not yet tolerating me. Which, other than the mosquitoes, is not the case: it wasn’t long before I felt at home here.

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A few months ago I looked out of our third floor window to the small garden below as night was falling. I felt like it was firefly season and about time I saw some. So I kept staring. Then when a single orange flash appeared I was strangely unsure if it was real or in my imagination. I stared some more and thought perhaps I’ll never know if they are real again. I continued to wonder as another flash, and another, appeared and the wonderfully unpredictable dance of firefly lights got under way.

Then, more recently, I looked out and saw just two over a longish period – not the right weather, or the season ending maybe. In the sky behind them there was some sheet lightening from an approaching storm. It reminded me of a far more dramatic yet in my mind now parallel scene. When I was 13 my family spent three weeks in Venezuela where Dad often goes for work (our holidays weren't usually so exotic - to the South of England or to France). One evening we were brushing our teeth by the Caroní river, which we were travelling up by boat to reach the Angel Falls. The opposite bank was a black strip of jungle aflame with thousands of fireflies while sheet lightening lit the sky in flashes above. I was awed.

The scene here in Astoria was more domestic. The fireflies, which as mentioned were just a couple not a multitude, were in a tangled patch of urban garden. The backdrop wasn’t jungle but a large apartment building on the block behind ours – a great flat rectangle of a construction whose windows offer glimpses into the lives inside at night – and to the west of that the beaded white lights of the Triboro’ Bridge forming triangles leading to Manhattan and the Bronx. I was still awed. By the rhythm at work between the insects, the sky and the human interventions. By the sense of myself watching through the window unobserved. And by the overlapping of the two scenes in my mind, past and present.

Friday, June 29, 2012

NY missive no 112 - A June 22 birth story

Note: not for reading if you don't fancy hearing about a birth process - it's not full of graphic details, but has some detail!

Two years and a bit later and I’m driving with C in a taxi over the 59th Street bridge in labor again. Though the first time arguably I wasn’t quite “in labor”, as my water had broken but contractions hadn’t yet kicked in – I’m not sure when labor officially begins. Anyway, this time there were contractions. They had started while I was walking with Mum and JNH down 30th Avenue in Astoria. Mum had just arrived off the plane from the UK an hour previously and we had been looking forward to a week of relaxation, getting organized, spending time with JNH etc. before CMH’s due date. Clearly that wasn’t to be.

They began as a gentle rhythmic whirring from the back to the front of my body, a distant rumble. Like a machine that had been lying dormant for a long time slowly grinding back into action. I didn’t say anything at first, just observed the sensation as we bought salad ingredients from Elliniki Agora Fruit and Vegetable, and spanakopita from Athens Café.

When we were back at the apartment, by which time the fact that yes, these were contractions, was sinking in, there was a torrential rainstorm. The rain was still falling as C and I got into the taxi and it drove us to Mount Sinai Hospital on the Upper East Side: Mum was thrown into the thick of things with JNH's bedtime routine (such as it is). When we approached the hospital I was struck by the view looking West down 99th Street to Central Park. Time froze momentarily as I looked at it. At the end of the street were the blackening silhouettes of trees against the by now post-storm evening brightness of the sky.

I was lucky and got a delivery room overlooking the park. As night fell the features of the park were rapidly effaced by the pedestrian crossing light closer by as it changed from white man walking to red man standing and back again. The machine in my body was grinding more rhythmically and intensely and so it remained for three or four hours. Deep breaths in, then concentrating on getting all the air back out. C was there, patiently supporting and no doubt thinking oh-my-god-here-we-go-again.

A wonderful nurse, N, guided me on. We had between-contraction conversations. Among them she mentioned how she’s volunteering as a doula for a 16 year old who is going through the process of pregnancy and labor alone. N hopes the girl’s labor comes when she not on her nursing shift so that she can be there (a friend is also working with the same girl so hopefully one of them will be present). She said 16 year olds often cope much better with the whole thing than older women. Partly because they’ve crammed in less “knowledge” and are more likely to trust the process, and because they’ve been exposed to fewer stories about what can potentially go wrong.

Then came a second phase. My doctor arrived and did a second check to see how far along I’d progressed. Baby’s head was far down, she said, but I was still only 3cm (out of 10) dilated like when I’d arrived at the hospital and – this I was well aware of – my water hadn’t broken yet. I’m pretty sure it was that CMH’ and my body weren’t yet in sync. He was more ready to arrive than my body was to release him.

My doctor presented options. During an experience so momentous you hope for clear instructions and a sense of what to do. But as with so many other things, you’re faced with decisions and are never quite confident you’re making the right one – especially as nowadays in modern hospitals there are so many different paths to take and supposed motivations for taking them.

Options she suggested were for her to break my water to get things moving, to give me an epidural so I relaxed more, or to send me home to keep laboring there for a while. None of them felt right. In particular the going home one – I couldn’t imagine getting dressed let alone getting into a taxi. We decided just to stall for a while. I’d walk the corridor for 40 minutes, go onto the monitor for 20 and we’d see where things were at.

Over that hour the machine in me went into full gear. I remembered that now from JNH’s labor: N described it has hitting a wall. You think that you’re getting into the flow of things when boom suddenly it’s much more difficult. I swung between determination to move everything faster – including visualizing water falling – and frustration and tiredness just wanting the whole thing to end. The key is remembering and trusting that the machine is your body and it knows what to do.

At the end of the hour, suddenly whoosh my water broke like a bucket being emptied from inside of me then within five minutes I had to push, leapt, for some animal instinct reason, onto all fours, and CMH was born, before my doctor made it back into the room (one of the Mt Sinai resident doctors made it in time to catch him). C, who saw, said he did a kind of somersault.

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A story of JNH's birth, interwoven with a couple of other birth stories, is here

Monday, June 18, 2012

NY missive no 111 – Socrates Sculpture Park, the East River and time

Tucked between a Costco and a rusty-gated warehouse guarded by barking dogs on the far Western Side of Astoria, bordering the East River, is Socrates Sculpture Park. Sometimes the grass is wearing a bit thin. There’s often a feeling that things are in flux, as the rotating exhibit of sculptures changes. On one visit you might find a captivating cement tree embedded with rescued ceramics (an owl here, a cat there, a fish, a human face, pastel flowers), the next a dirty mound marking the spot where it stood, and the next, grass over that mound making it a perfect perch for picnickers and sprawled sunbathers.

The feeling of things in flux is part of the park’s magic though. That, and the contrasting presence of the river, which despite its restless flow and fluctuating light speaks of permanence. It’s the same river after all that was navigated by the Rockaway Indians in their canoes, and the same river where they ominously reported sighting “white winged canoes” in the late 1400s and early 1500s when on various occasions the British and Dutch eventual settlers made their first sail-bys in search of a northwesterly route to the East.

It’s the same river where the Hussar frigate sank, supposedly containing a chest full of coins that was never recovered. It’s the same river where on June 15, 1904 the General Slocum excursion boat caught fire. Over a thousand passengers died, mainly women and children, who were on an outing from St Mark’s Lutheran Church on the Lower East Side – it was New York City’s worst disaster before the 9/11 attacks. It’s the same river where there are new efforts afoot to encourage recreational canoeing, and where the East River ferry recently re-launched, making quick hops downstream: 34th Street in Manhattan - Long Island City - Williamsburg - DUMBO - Wall Street - Governors’ Island and back again.

One of the current exhibits in the Sculpture Park reflects the area’s past and present and casts an eye to the future. Thin red and white striped vertical poles mark a route from one of the park’s entrances on Vernon Boulevard, to the river. Their colors echo the red and white striped chimneys of "Big Alice" power station a little downstream, while the path they follow marks that taken by Sunswick Creek. The creek used to wind its way from what is now 37th Avenue and 21st Street to its East River mouth. As an 1896 history of Long Island City describes, when the East River first formed after Long Island Sound burst opened up to the sea, the river's “Western shore became scenes of salt marshes, lagoons and creeks…Beaver, deer and other fur and food producing animals roamed the forests, while the streams abounded with fish and other food products of the sea.”

Over time the creek became surrounded with agricultural land, then industry, and was then buried entirely by an illegal dumping ground which in 1986 artists, led by the sculptor Mark di Suvero, claimed to create the Socrates Sculpture Park. The exhibit also works inland to the former creek’s source, using red and white stripes painted onto lamposts. It is the artist Mary Miss’ contribution to a project called “Civic Action: A Vision for Long Island City” in which the Sculpture Park and nearby Noguchi Museum are exploring ideas for what this waterfront area could become.

Artists who take up in previously derelict areas are often gentrification canaries. A pattern kicks in, in which before long they help make an area desirable, which pushes prices up and them out. Socrates Sculpture Park looks stunning at the moment. It’s a hive of activity and excitement. Yet I can’t help being wary of a future High-Line effect (while hopeful it can be avoided). Recently, walking down the High Line on the Western edge of Manhattan, a disused elevated railway line that has been converted into a long thin park, I was struck by how corporatized it feels.

The High Line is still fun to visit, with its quirky-angled views Chelsea buildings and streets and the occasional glimpse of a fragment of the Hudson, but new luxury apartment buildings already loom over it and are beginning to dominate. Most are still freshly-clad in billboards advertising their location “on”, “by” or “over the High Line”. The songs of birds pecking at feed-boxes on an exhibit designed to attract them are drowned out not only by tourists’ cameras photographing them but more loudly by the banging and clanging of adjacent construction sites. Squished between the new buildings are stifled attempts by arty types to say “hey don’t forget us”: a naked mannequin posing in a window here, some space-claiming graffiti there.

In an earlier post on a “Queens Kind of Cool” I hoped that Queens retains three defining traits as it evolves: diversity, entrepreneurialism and openness. The same goes for changes along Queens’ border with the East River. Hopefully the park and its surrounding areas will also keep elements of messy flux and marshiness. Hopefully they will always be a place where the river brings a whiff of the past and the land can render surprise.

This pic was taken back in April. When I went to the park the other day the grass was much thicker, the sun shining, and the Sunswick Creek exhibit complete - here it's still in the making.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

New York missive no 110 - Clockwork Oranges on corporate control?

Image by ~gsgill37 at Deviant Art

In an article about the writing of Clockwork Orange, recently re-printed in the New Yorker, Anthony Burgess focuses on the dangers of government control over our lives and particularly our minds. It struck me that it seemed dated, for the fact that corporate control didn’t feature as a theme in the book or his thinking about it (the article was written in 1973). Now there’s not only a lot of corporate control in our lives, but so much of government control is corporate control.

There are plenty examples of government repression in the old sense – look at the recent massacres in Syria. Even there, though, there is a corporate dimension. For example the fact that Russia is pushing for the “international community” not to intervene is no doubt connected to the fact that 10% of Russia’s arms exports go to Syria.

Here’s a very different example, less violent but more pervasive. Burgess says in his article: “…[W]hen patterns of conformity are imposed by the state, then one has a right to be frightened.” Among some of the prolific news coverage of Facebook’s public offering last week are commentaries on the way in which Facebook drives conformity. Like this one in Asia Times, which says Facebook's raison d'être is “to advertise one's conformity to commercial culture in a way that preserves the illusion of individuality.”

Another dimension, different again, is the privatization of detention and the way in which the pursuit of profit drives up prison populations. In Louisiana, where the prison system is largely privatized, the proportion of the adult population in prison is nearly double the US national average. As Charles Blow says in his powerful op-ed about a Times-Picayune investigation on the issue: “The state’s largely private prison system profits from high incarceration rates and tough sentencing…[M]any with the power to curtail the system actually have a financial incentive to perpetuate it. The picture that emerges is one of convicts as chattel and a legal system essentially based on human commodification.”

Fear of government control over our lives can now more realistically be placed in a fear of corporate control. Time for a Clockwork Orange or two to tackle these and other manifestations of it.

New York missive no 109 - Gluing things together, and City Island

Last weekend I glued various things together that needed gluing. I’d even written a list of them to keep track – ready for when I got around to buying the superglue. They were things that JNH had broken unintentionally at various points through play and exploration (in most cases, through me letting him play with things he probably shouldn’t). They were:

- A fox’s head back on its body. The fox is from a set of china Beatrix Potter characters that I’d had as a child, gathered on top of a little shelf of Potter's books. One day JNH tugged the top of his bureau. The bureau, its drawers, the books, the china fox and his friends, came tumbling down.

- The tail back onto a china tiger (more china!), given as a good luck present when JNH was born by Dad’s business contact in China: JNH was born in a year of the tiger.

- The groom back onto our wedding cake decoration, which despite its tackiness we keep on top of the fridge as a souvenir. Good thing neither C nor I are superstitious.

- A tail and ear back onto a giraffe piggy bank.

- A small joining piece back onto the bridge from a wooden train set.

- I gave up when it came to the fragile ladder from a plastic FDNY fire truck.

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The mind moves like plate techtonics. Ideas grind and slide alongside one another, their movements barely perceptible. Then a clunk, a shift. On occasion an earthquake.

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After visiting the Bronx Zoo JNH’s godfather W picked us up in his car and we drove to City Island. It dangles off the Bronx shore into the far Western hip of Long Island Sound. With the architecture of a quaint New England fishing village, at the weekend it still feels the pulse of the city as Bronx-dwellers come for a getaway. We ate fish and chips at one of the rammed sea-food restaurants overlooking the Sound, accompanied by the roar of revving motorbikes, salsa beats and seagull cries.

Monday, May 28, 2012

New York Missive no 108 - Bronx Zoo

(My camera's broken so till I have it fixed I'm using images from elsewhere. This is from the Wildlife Conservation Society headquartered at Bronx Zoo, used in the book "A Different Nature: The Paradoxical World of Zoos and Their Uncertain Future", in which I found some of the historical details below. It's of the first Director of the zoo William Hornaday, at his desk in 1910.)

Last Sunday we took JNH to the Bronx Zoo, for a second birthday outing. Apparently its first Director William Hornaday wasn’t at all happy with it being described as the “Bronx Zoo.” When it opened in 1899 it was called the New York Zoological Park. He told newspapers that “the nickname ‘Bronx Zoo’ is undignified, offensive, injurious, totally unnecessary, [and] inexcusable.”

But of course the name stuck, to the extent that Bronx Zoo is a powerful brand. When we walked up from the East Tremont Ave subway station, following beneath the rickety iron of the elevated tracks before they curved off to the right, we soon saw the huge sign in block capitals above the Asia Gate entrance ahead of us: “BRONX ZOO.”

The place puts all other zoos I have visited to shame. Most leave you with a lingering feeling of guilt for gawping at animals in cramped enclosures. Not so here, where it almost seemed the other way around. Most of the animals appeared utterly at ease in their environment and in pristine condition, somewhat superior to the clumsy crowds who wove their way between the exhibits clutching their crumpled maps and sipping on sodas. (We timed our visit well, arriving only an hour or so after the zoo opened, and leaving by three. By that time the toddlers and babies who had not yet succumbed to their middle-of-the-day snooze emanated hot grumpiness, their tired parents likewise).

Two words particularly come to mind in thinking about the zoo: proximity and participation. Visitors work their way through the middle of some of the enclosures in tunnels protected by glass, so that you are right up next to the animals. Hornaday had been critical of attempts to place animals in realistic habitats when that meant having to keep them far away from the visitors. When the German zoo pioneer Carl Hagenbeck approached him with a concept for “barless bear dens”, Hornaday said that, “I pointed out to him the great disadvantage that would be entailed by having our bears separated from our visitors by a distance of sixty or seventy feet. We deliberately decided against the Hagenbeck idea [and] we have never regretted it.”

Thanks to technological developments, a later Director of the zoo William Conway could go much further in combining realistic habitats with spectator-proximity. He set up an in-house design team that has approached zoo layout as theater. Epitomizing that approach is the Congo Gorilla Forest, which opened in 1999. It was our first target destination (we purposefully didn’t want to try to cover the whole zoo on one visit, we just had a few things we were keen to see while leaving the rest to random encounter). The route there brought us past camel rides for kids, then African Plains with its gazelle, lions and giraffe – and a “Dora [the Explorer] & Diego’s 4D Adventure”.

Once in Congo Gorilla Forest you work through narrow pathways (strollers are left at the entrance) that feel remarkably like navigating a real forest, without the bugs and heat. First we came across an Okapi, just a few feet away behind glass, grazing on a tree. They’re striking creatures, like a cross between a zebra, a gazelle and an Avatar from the recent film, with black extending tongues. This one was displaying his/hers as it grasped the leaves. Then we found the gorillas, getting on with their business rubbing their tummies and yawning and ambling about the place, at ease with the crowds of captivated humans. Words and photographs worked into parts of the exhibit tell you about how the Congo’s forest is threatened. Then on the way out you’re asked to vote how your contribution (some of the features in the zoo cost extra) should be used for conservation efforts.

That brings me to the second word, “participation.” Everywhere throughout the zoo visitors are educated in simple but effective ways about the animals they are seeing. And they’re told stories of conversation and the need for it. One of our unplanned encounters was with the bison. While a group of bison with their mountain-peak shoulder blades sat in a clearing in front of us, we read that they were the zoo’s first conservation success-story. Hornaday, before Bronx Zoo existed, had led an expedition out West to find some bison for an exhibition. The expedition spent five months searching planes where once herds of millions of bison had roamed, and were able to bring back just 25. The expansion of the Northern Pacific Railroad had led to their mass slaughter, mainly for their hides. When the Bronx Zoo opened, Hornaday acquired bison for it and began to build up the herd. From there, bison were shipped back to some of their former locations in the wild: now many of the bison in the Western USA are descendants of those bred in the Bronx.

Two year-old JNH, of course, saw the zoo in his own unpredictable way. For example at Tiger Mountain it wasn’t the tigers that impressed but the fish. Here again you could get right up close. While two tigers sprawled on their rocks a few meters away, right next to us just behind the glass was their cooling-off pool. The water came up to adult belly-level. So it was perfect for JNH to stand pressed up against the glass watching the fish swim their jazzy ballet on the other side. He followed their movements with his hands, “fish up, down, up-down, there, here, there,” one of the zoo memories he would repeat when we got back home.

I realized as we walked around that I have rarely been to a zoo except when I was a child, or accompanying one. They are a place for children to see in the flesh the animals that they read about so much in books. But what do we do with all that knowledge as adults - all those labeled tapirs and colored-in parrots on clipboards? In the midst of a metropolis where our place in the animal kingdom is so easily forgotten, the Bronx Zoo reminds us of the millions of species we share the planet with. It resuscitates wonder and appreciation, even if only fleetingly.

Monday, May 21, 2012

New York Missive no 107 - "Prolonged exposure may cause irritation"

“Prolonged exposure can cause irritation,” says the label on the bottle of Rite Aid’s lavender bubble bath that I’ve been using from time to time recently. As well as putting me off using it, reading that phrase led me to think it applies to many things.

Twitter among them. At the PEN World Voices festival event “Margaret Atwood on the Writers’ Mind and the Digital Otherworld”, Atwood spoke about her use of the internet, and specifically, Twitter. One of the threads of what she said was that fiction is always changed by the platforms that is has for delivery. For example if Chekov had not had the option of writing short fiction for Russian magazines for money in the nineteenth century, then it’s likely we would not have any Chekov short stories. The internet provides one other platform for delivery. “Make space available and things will move into it very quickly. And if you shut something down, then you cut off that method of expression,” she said.

It’s easy to be overly fearful of the potential effects of new technology. She referred to “bicycle face”, the idea that when the bicycle first came into use, people would develop flat faces given the speed at which they’d be moving. But, she said, while maybe the day will come when we are all in little pods looking at a screen, “that hasn’t happened yet.”

Crucially though, she said she aims to spend just 10-15 minutes a day on Twitter, where she currently has over 300,000 followers. She sees it like having a little “radio station on which you do public service announcements, when you’re not making typos.” I like the radio station analogy. You don’t necessarily know what you’re going to be exposed to when you turn it on and will often be pleasantly surprised by its randomness. Though of course tuning into Twitter is like listening to a radio on which thousands of channels fade in and out in rapid succession. It’s up to you and the present agility or sleepiness of your brain which ones you hone in on.

Using it when I can for work and for my 30th Ave stuff, often I alight on something surprising and relevant that I wouldn’t have found in other ways. And there’s the thrill of raw, emerging, close-to-the-ground yet unverified information, coming from individual people’s perspectives. (Which you could call unreliable, but what information is reliable?). The pace though is also where the irritation comes in. I’ve seen swarms of people interested in a particular cause enter a tweeting and retweeting frenzy about it then as suddenly as the frenzy started attention swerves away and you’re left wondering what it achieved.

The recent attention around the situation of the Bahraini hunger-striking activist Abdulhadi Al-Khawaja is an example. People who had previously little or no knowledge of the situation in Bahrain were suddenly tweeting their concern for him as family members warned he was close to death. A few days later, when the high-profile Formula 1 race was over in the country, the tweets fell off significantly. And this BBC interview with him indicates he is not currently as fragile as many had made out, another reminder that there’s no substitute for face-to-face encounters as reality checks (when possible that is: the Bharani authorities only allowed the BBC journalist 5 minutes with him).

All that is to say, you can be left feeling irritated after prolonged exposure to Twitter – a somewhat deflated and resentful feeling that it has sucked in many minutes of your time yet you have little to show for it.

As for the Rite Aid bubble bath, I’ve not yet got around to investing in a posher bottle that doesn’t have that kind of warning (as if prolonged exposure to the contents of a posher bottle would be much better anyway). And my hesitancy in using it is counterbalanced by wanting to have something – bubbles – to soften the drama of the three big bumps that rise out of the water when I look towards my toes: at 34 weeks pregnant there’s a huge belly and boobs bigger than their usual size.

Saturday, May 5, 2012

New York missive no 106 - Revolution, agency and multiple voices

Image from PEN - World Voices Festival of International Literature, 2012

In a panel called “Understanding Egypt” at the PEN World Voices Festival on Thursday, a recurring point was the way in which the recent revolutions (still in process) in the Middle East revealed a diversity of voices that had previously been ignored.

Mona Eltahawy highlighted how they have changed perceptions particularly in the West, where previously Arabs were seen as a homogenous block, acceptant of their dominant rulers. Within Egypt too, she pointed out, there was a tendency among liberal intellectuals to doubt people’s potential to rise up. That perception has been blown away. Elias Khoury, also speaking on the panel, said how inspiring it was to see movements like the indignados in Spain and the Occupiers on Wall Street drawing inspiration from the protestors in Tahrir Square.

And YET. So quickly the diverse voices of the revolution are being blurred again into sweepingly-defined groups. “The wonderful and beautiful diversity of voices is now being ignored – you’re not hearing it,” Eltahawy said. That’s particularly the case because elections are underway in Egypt. The US administration is not doing much to help matters, she added, as they (like most governments), can only deal with talking to one group at a time.

The dangers of this approach by governments – of just dealing with one “group” at a time and squeezing people into groups accordingly – are driven home in Carne Ross’ wonderful book “The Leaderless Revolution” that I’m in the middle of reading. The events in the Middle East are mentioned, but the book deals far more broadly with the limitations of government in resolving both national and international challenges, and the way in which individual agency has to come into play for any meaningful change to happen. (The subtitle is "How ordinary people will take power and change politics in the 21st century"). Ross is a former UK diplomat. "[M]y experience,” he says, “suggests that states, and their exponents, do not accurately reflect what humans are about, nor what they want.”

The ideas that run through the book to underscore the importance of individual agency include the fact that “one individual can affect the whole system very rapidly"; that “it is action that convinces, not words” (while recognizing the helpful role of the internet he’s rightfully dismissive of the power of online petitions...); the way in which a false dependence on the rule-making and keeping of un-representative governments absolves people of a sense of responsibility; and a reminder that real interaction between people is essential (“decision-making is better when it includes the people most affected”).

Of course that individual agency, multiplied, was instrumental in the massive shifts in the Middle East. It has to continue to be instrumental for the revolutionary wheel to keep turning. (All three of the panelists – Eltahawy, Khoury and also Rula Jebreal – had problems with the term “Arab Spring”. Among them the invitation for it to lead to “Winter”, the fact that “Arab” erases the non-Arabs of the region, and that it reflects fear of the word revolution. And please, no flowers, no colors, no “jasmine” etc., said Eltahawy, just say revolution!).

Khoury pointed out that in the past, revolutions have followed a text. These are revolutions without a text – the text is being written as they are played out. Here’s hoping that the text has multiple authors.

Monday, April 30, 2012

New York missive no 105: Kindles, cars and connections

Pic: hats on display in a 28th Street shop window, no direct connection to this post

One thing with Kindles is that you get less of a sense of the literary landscape of a subway ride. On a recent commute I enjoyed seeing that a guy standing on the platform was reading a paperback called “Wild New Jersey: Nature Adventures in the Garden State”. And, once on the train, that a woman near me was reading “Friends, Lovers, Chocolate”. With e-readers it is harder to see what people are reading. It’s one symptom of the easy-to-bemoan privatization-by-gadgetization of our lives.

Author and lecturer Douglas Bauer points to another potential consequence in his recent Writers’ Chronicle article, “Cather’s World and the Future of Narrative.” He had recently taught a course on Willa Cather’s novels and was surprised by the way his young students appreciated her use of detailed descriptions of nature to convey emotions. To what extent, he wondered, will new emerging writers, who have grown up spending much of their time plugged into headphones and looking at screens as they move about the pace, be willing and able to use descriptions of their environments in their writing? Will writing change significantly as a result?

He said that it’s too early to have seen effects in well-known writers’ work. I imagine good writers will continue to keep gleaning material from the physical environment even if they just use one eye to do it while the other’s drawn to a screen. Also, that whatever does go missing in terms of geographical presence is compensated by new forms of reflecting human experience (and the lack of it).

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Cars are another form of disconnection from surroundings, more dated of course. The other day TM gave us a lift back from their place in Park Slope, Brooklyn. JNH was excited by the ride. “More drive, more drive,” he’d request whenever we stopped at traffic lights. On previous car journeys, he had either been ambivalent or bawling his head off, not used to the feeling of constraint. They had been few and far between, just taxi rides to the airport when we go to see our scattered family in the UK, San Francisco, Miami and Dominican Republic, and trips in the cars of relatives while there.

This time though was totally different. He looked out of the window and described what he saw, and kept up a babbling conversation of sorts with C and TM in the front seats. I too, even felt a slight nostalgic thrill at moving through neighborhoods so quickly, watching them glide past. Of course if we ever get a car the novelty for both of us would very quickly disappear. And notwithstanding the financial and environmental costs that would come with it there’s the human one. On a car journey, from when you leave the front door there’s no form of interaction with the people you pass on the streets. Except, that is, for the occasional screen-divided gesture shared with another driver.

On our pedestrian wanderings around Astoria there are multiple interactions. Walking home with JNH from his daycare the other day for example there was the graying woman who agreed she loved “those horses” when she saw JNH admiring a luminous farm-scene on the side of a supermarket; the huddle of men outside the Irish pub who had clearly been there most the afternoon joking that “I started drinking at that age” as JNH started trying to toddle inside; the lady who commented, “I remember that phase so well, enjoy it,” as he lingered for a long time examining one of those coin-operated machines with a dangling grabber you maneuver to try to get hold of a toy. (Yes, if we’re not in a hurry to get back, our evening return can take a long time – up to an hour for what in adult circumstances is an under 15 minute walk).

Each interaction like that in itself might not count for much, but taken together they build a sense of belonging and shared humanity that car journeys never can. Of course for many people dawdling just isn’t an option. Others might see that kind of passing interaction with strangers as a compelling reason to drive rather than not to. But right now I’m enjoying sensing the presence of the streets at walking pace.

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The Psychogeography book I read recently quotes a fabulous critique of travel by Joris-Karl Huysaman. It’s from his 1884 novel À Rebours. The main character Des Esseintes plans to visit London, inspired by the novels of Charles Dickens. But he only gets as far as ordering a taxi and going to an English tavern in Paris before returning home, tired out. It dawns on him that the experience may have been more rewarding than the real thing.

"'Get up, man, and go,’ he kept telling himself, but these orders were no sooner given than countermanded. After all, what was the good of moving, when a fellow could travel so magnificently sitting in a chair? Wasn’t he already in London, whose smells, weather, citizens, and even cutlery, were all about him? What could he expect to find over there, save fresh disappointments...

‘As it is, I must have been suffering from some mental aberration to have thought of repudiating my old convictions, to have rejected the visions of my obedient imagination, and to have believed like any ninny that it was necessary, interesting, and useful to travel abroad.’” [French original is available here: from the last two paras.]

I shared that quote with C who appreciated it greatly, as a regular critic of my and others’ globe-trotting tendencies.

That gets me thinking what it is about travel that appeals. Many things. There’s the way a new environment perks up the senses, the freeing knowledge that at a given time no-one you know knows where you are, the instinct of observation that comes with not belonging, an openness to the unexpected, and making tangible a place that previously only existed as a name, an idea, in your mind. Other than the last one though, all those conditions can be reproduced without travelling, in a location that is supposedly familiar. All the more so when that place is a city.

Friday, April 27, 2012

New York missive no 104 - Pear tree

A while ago I was sitting on the sofa in our living room as dusk was falling. JNH was on my knee having his early evening bottle of milk (still a comforting routine for him – actually for both of us - even though he probably ‘should’ have outgrown it by now, to use the parlance of parenting advice).

There’s a pear tree outside our window, as I’ve mentioned before. As our apartment is on the third floor we are about at the bushiest part of the tree. While we sat on the sofa its leaves and branches were just distinguishable still: black lines against the deepening gray. Then I saw a dark hunched shape in the thick of them. I strained my eyes to make the shape out more clearly, to be sure it was what I thought it was. “Big bird,” I whispered to JNH. It was a city hawk, but in the midst of the blurry branches and night it was both there and not there.

JNH stopped drinking and we crept up closer to the window. It was definitely a hawk. For just a few moments we stood staring, neither we nor hawk moved. Then it launched off its branch and glided silently down the street. It flew in an absolutely straight line parallel to the houses, above the middle of the road. “See? Big, bird?” whispered JNH.

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The pear tree stands out on the block for its symmetrical shape and the fact it always appears tougher than others. Each year it’s the first tree around to bud, then to blossom (a white blizzard) and then develop its dense summer leaves. It keeps its leaves a long time, to the extent that when we first moved in I thought it was an evergreen, delaying a startling orange send-off before discarding them for winter. Despite its sturdy shape though, its individual branches are long and thin.

When viewed alone each one seems fragile as it reaches up, jostling with others. In strong winds I imagine that a small creature clinging to one of those branches would feel like being on a raft in the middle of the ocean in a storm. The branches give wide lurches like rolling waves and make sudden changes of direction. Most small creatures, I hope, would find a more secure shelter.

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If you’re on the balcony you can stretch over, just, and touch a leaf. The tree is close but not crowdedly so. Back in the living room, there is an element of being in a tree house but with more respectful distance. The windows face almost South. As the sun sets (over the far side of the East River, which is just to the West of us) the tree juggles with its rays and throws light-balls onto the shadows of the living room wall.

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There. Have I purged myself of references to that pear tree? I doubt it.

Of course ours isn't the only pear tree in NYC. I came across these great pics of some of the others.