Friday, July 16, 2021

NY missive no 182 - From a bird's song

This is a belated post about a bird that appeared in our garden in early Spring. I say appeared, but we never actually saw him. Around 6am or even earlier he would start his high pitched song: “Beeeeeeee – beeeee, be, be-be-be, be-be-be”. And a few minutes later, “Beeeeeeee – beeeee, be, be-be-be, be-be-be”.

This would continue sporadically throughout the morning. Just as you thought he’d gone quiet he would pipe up again. Up high in the wild branches of G’s trees next door, we couldn’t see the source of the song.

Of course, there’s now an app that can recognize birdsong. I downloaded BirdNet, recorded a short segment, and uploaded it for analysis. Apparently those segments travel across to servers at Chemnitz University of Technology in Germany where they are compared with a growing database of millions of bird songs.

The answer came back: “white throated sparrow” (which goes by zonotrichia albicollis in Latin). Hardly exotic, therefore, but that distinctive song will probably stay with me forever, marking a period as the city was beginning to re-open from the pandemic. Our next door neighbor on the other side, T, said he had been hearing it every morning too.

I told P and Dad about the white throated sparrow and BirdNet via WhatsApp and it sparked a flurry of reminiscence about other birds in other places, and other people. I commented that Dad’s brother C, who loved birds and kept learning about them until he died much too young in his forties, would probably not have needed an App to identify the song.

“Yes, C had a ton of books on birds…”, Dad replied, “It was fun in Scotland [where they lived for a while as kids] looking for peregrine falcons and the occasional eagle. I was a bit fascinated by birds of prey.” To which P replied that where she lives, in the Swiss mountains, she loves it when the eagles fly close to the hotel and restaurant that she and her partner run in the Summers: “two of them live in the rocks just above.”

A stream of associations and connection assisted by technology and by the distinctive song of a white-throated sparrow.


It's impossible to quantify what having access to trees has meant this past year. Here's something JNH wrote recently:

"Whenever I go into my garden, and I hear the birds chriping and see the trees waving as if they're saying hi to me, I feel as if my garden is one being, shown to me through many others."

Friday, June 18, 2021

NY missive no 181 - Spicy meatballs and the decline of the Roman Empire

There you have it. So much of what you love about a person condensed into a little moment.

C was cooking spaghetti and meatballs for our supper. He sang one of his invented ditties – this one about “spicy meatballs” – the kind of song that you really wouldn’t sing around anyone except close family, then came across to me picking up off the table his red hardback copy of Edward Gibbon's “The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire” (plucked at some point from a bookshelf at my parents’ house), flipping through it to show me that he’s almost at the end, having reached the chapter called “The Seige of Constantinople”. Head a bit tilted back, wearing his glasses, celebrating the book, that’s my life partner right there.

Saturday, May 29, 2021

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


Unisphere, May 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

Unisphere, April 2021

Saturday, May 8, 2021

NY missive no 179 - Eternal Flame

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, February 14, 2021

NY missive no 178 - There is Time

The pandemic has warped and layered time like an earthquake disrupting rock formations developed over millions of years. It has played around with time and with distance in ways that we only partially grasp, or are conscious of, while busily distracting ourselves with our technology.

“Is that a donkey?”, Fi asked on Instagram, when I posted a photo of JNH sitting reading in a rocking chair, next to a wooden piece of furniture M and D had given me way back for a birthday – a magazine and small-book holder made from plywood – yes a Donkey it’s called. The rocking chair in the photo was the one from an Astoria thrift store that I’d got when I had the idea, when pregnant, that a rocking chair was a good thing to have for feeding a baby and rocking them to sleep. I happened to be sitting in that chair breastfeeding JNH at 3ish one morning when I heard the news on the radio that Osama Bin Laden had been killed.

The book that JNH (now 10) was reading in the photo was called “Continental Drift”, following the movement of tectonic plates through geological epochs. When I sit on the rocking chair – rare moments at weekends – I rest that big Continental Drift book over the top of the Donkey to turn it into a table for a drink and bowl of salt and vinegar crisps. These are just some rather specific moments that are mind-blowingly tiny compared to the epochs in the book.

I have moments of feeling I should be firing on all cylinders like I ended up doing last year yet finding, in 2021, it much harder to do so. Moments of saying for heavens sake now of all times is a time to go slower, to reflect, when possible, and precisely not to fire on all cylinders. And moments when I just let both those opposing thoughts cancel each other out, and respect the arbitrariness of time. We can bounce fast along the surface of it, we can pause and dive deep into it, maybe we can sometimes stop it entirely. 

Tuesday, January 19, 2021

NY missive no 177 - Birthday and tomorrow's inauguration

So this is my first pandemic birthday, let’s see if it’s my last. The sun’s pouring through the front window. JNH is watching the pre-class videos for his online class which will start soon. (He’s using the big desk that was Mum’s, and her Dad’s before that, which has “skipped a generation” as he puts it). CMH is on the sofa having his 30 minutes of allocated FIFA-game-on-i-pad time. C is on his morning walk. And I’m writing this with a coffee and a chocolate croissant from Leli’s bakery, which we picked up on our morning “walk to school” round the block. The small details like that have taken on so much more weight this past year when everything is in flux and fragile. Like stepping stones over a river. Down the coast from here the mall and Capitol are pretty much barricaded as DC prepares for the inauguration of Biden as President and Kamala Harris as Vice President tomorrow, with 25,000 national guard troops protecting the area from potential insurrectionary attacks. 

The storming of the Capitol on January 6th was not surprising. Disturbing, yes, but not surprising, and for everyone who’s commenting “this is not America”, it totally is – a through-thread that’s been embedded in the country from the days of the colonists alongside the narrative of a trajectory towards a shared ideal. I remember when Biden’s winning was confirmed a few days after the election. Spontaneous celebrations burst out on the streets, including down the road here in Astoria, and it did feel like an elephant that had been sitting on our heads the past few years had just got up, but that was accompanied by a sense that any over-emphasis on restoring “normality” and going “back” to a better time was flawed and dangerous, just as when Trump talks about making America great again. I’m hoping that the next few years sees politics connecting deeply and practically with people - with everyone - where they are at in their lives, drawing lessons from the long-term door to door organizing in Georgia that brought black voters to the polls and flipped the Senate. 

Connecting with people where they are at is easier said than done, especially when there’s instant-community-at-the-fingertips on the web. The role of the social media giants in recent election cycles, as they have profited from misinformation – including fanning the myth of a stolen election which will have enormous repercussions over the coming years – is an example of corporate capture of politics to an extreme (another age-old force, though not unique to the US by any means). Time will tell which forms the street landscape and the online landscape take over these coming years, how they relate, and which holds the most sway.


Right, so JNH is now out of his online class, and their (awesome) teacher, who had wanted to stream tomorrow's inauguration for them, said the Department of Education isn't allowing it because there's no knowing what bad things might happen in the middle of it. 

Update: Both kids watched anyway on TV and were glued to it.