Monday, August 27, 2007

New York New York big city of dreams...

Whomever provides the city of New York with its scaffolding must be a very wealthy person. Somewhere in the Bronx there must be warehouses with miles and miles of the stuff; it seemed there wasn't a block or building facade in all of Manhattan without several tiers of it, either for some construction project or maybe just to provide shade for street pedestrians.
New York City is overwhelming, an immense, neverending stream of spectacle and humanity, noise and color, artifice and resilient pockets (or hordes) of nature, human, other, metaphysical. Coming down by bus from Boston, I was very quickly relieved of all illusions of Boston as any kind of pretender to the urban crown that New York certainly wears - long before we crossed into Manhattan we traveled past endless rows of tall, square brick residential buildings, sprouting air conditioners and hanging clothes from their windows. These were massive compounds, truly reminding me of those science fiction novels of the seventies where all of Earth's surface is covered by mile high buildings (except for the plankton farms of the open ocean) crammed with humanity, utopian or dystopian (which usually amounts to the same thing).
And then to arrive in Manhattan! This city would eat me alive, no doubt; just the pressing weight of the unending corridors of skyscrapers would flatten me in a matter of weeks, I think. Even in a short two days, the memorable sights and encounters were too many to completely list. The sweeping views from halfway across the Brooklyn bridge were a highlight, taking in the relatively modest hills and greenery of Brooklyn, the barges and pleasure boats moving through the swirling, turgid East River, the polyphony of Manhattan to the west, the stalwart edifice of the bridge itself, the many shapes and sizes of tourists (and a few locals certainly) moving with me across the span. A more mysterious encounter also somehow seems indigenous to New York - friends and I were heading back to our hotel through Battery Park late at night when a hunched, shuffling man stepped out of the dark space between to shrubs with a piece of rope from which hung the head and upper torso of a large catfish.
I was there for the wedding of my good friend Jay and his beautiful new bride Aileen, and he had gathered a small assortment of friends from my days at Earlham College, a couple of whom I had not seen in well over a decade. There is something about the bonds you make at that age: though subsequent changes and travels might be severe, though you might not stay in touch with any regularity (I am particularly poor at that), though you might have completely different conceptions of the world and its mechanics - you tend to pick off right where you left off without skipping a beat, quickly moving through the requisite reminiscing and updating into a rhythm of interaction which seems as natural as breathing. This seemed surprising in one way, as most of these people I only really spent significant time with over the course of two to four years, yet not surprising in another, because those are the years that I can remember almost minute to minute twenty years later. There are many, many single days or nights whose events I can recall with greater precision and import than the total history of subsequent years or even half-decades. These are the times where coming across a plain black pipe stretching across a gully as you wander around the woods aimlessly discussing the guitar solos of Jimmy Page can somehow come to symbolize the workings of the universe, when a few hours socializing and playing ping-pong in a basement rec room can somehow form and root the way you look at everything, the way you laugh at things, the way you make sense of things.
Okay, but back to New York - actually, what more can I say? I had a few hours to myself where I wandered and took in some requisite sights and neighborhoods. Chinatown's seafood markets bristled with whole fish of every size and shape, assaulting my senses as they lay on beds of ice in the damp heat and sun. Central Park was thronged with probably three million separate digital cameras. I sometimes wonder how much of the world, what percentage, is contained in photographic images? I'm sure there's not a single inch of Central Park that has escaped notice several times over.
I went to the MoMA, and was suitably impressed and exhausted by their collection there. I spent the most time and was most taken with the Jackson Pollock room. Recently viewing Ed Harris' biographical film about Pollock gave me a new lease on appreciating his work, and I saw more variety of expression and form in his painting than I had ever seen before. Even just sticking with the 'splatter' paintings of his most famous period, I found some that relaxed me, some that jumped out from every corner, exploding just behind and beyond my retinas, some seemed to be tugging at me, trying to tell me something very specific yet unanswerable. One in particular that I don't remember the title of had a series of angular hieroglyphics in red embedded beneath the more naturalistic and arching swirls and drips, pulsing with meaning. How pretentious it all seems, sometimes, yet how essential that it's there to ponder. The world is a silly place, but the silliest things give us the greatest succor sometimes.
For my last night there we were lucky enough to be taken to a humble yet exquisite Vietnamese restaurant in Chinatown for an incredible meal - nothing fancy, just perfectly prepared, delicious food, from sizzling, slightly sweet pork chops to tender chunks of beef infused with lime and scallion. There was also tender shrimp with a light, clear brown sauce that had a toasted, smoky flavor, and plain, unadorned chinese celery, one of my favorite vegetables, the perfect sop for the leavings of all the other dishes. This restaurant was called Nha Trang, at 87 Baxter Street, behind the Manhattan Criminal Court building, and I highly recommend it.
I had other good meals, of course. There was the wedding meal of course, which was superb. For lunch one day I had a remarkable taco from a place on Kenmare Street called La Esquina of chorizo, potato and cactus paddle garnished with lime, crunchy cabbage and salsa verde. Lunch my second day consisted of a hot dog (a New York tradition no doubt but a little disappointing) and later on a perfect little pie of lamb kibbeh (can't remember the name of this place, it was in the financial district). A lot of meat was eaten this weekend! I may have to spend a few days roughing it with roughage to atone (I'm not a vegetarian but I like to keep my intake down).
This is all I'll say for now. Enjoy the rest of your summer, everybody!

Saturday, August 18, 2007

The horror, the horror

Do you want to hear a tale of woe? Of unreasoning fear and humiliating indignities? Of moments of black comedy that gutted me?

I'm being melodramatic here, and none of you should worry - I'm fine, healthy, nobody has died. However, I have gone through and am continuing to endure a trauma that seems to be affecting me much more than any rational look would indicate, and that is of course one of the reasons it's so interesting (though unfortunately extremely unpleasant).

By way of introduction to this story, an embarrassing admission, which some of you may already be aware of: I am scared of bats. Phobic, really. I thought I might be over it, but after last night and the way I continue to feel, I clearly am not. And it's interesting to see how one can be cruising through a decent patch, healthy, active, and suddenly a minor display of nature's bounty combined with a personal quirk undoes one almost completely.

Last night I was finishing my supper, around 8:30 or so, and I hear a noise in the corner of my living room. This first thing I always think when hearing an unknown rustling in my living space is bat, and might heart started thumping. I went over to the corner, where I have several book cases and CD shelves set up, and after a minute of trying to see back there I heard the unmistakable squeaking of a bat and a moment later it launched out from behind a bookcase and started diving and winging about my living room in it's floppy, terrifying way.

I freaked out. I opened my door frantically, which I was standing next to, leapt out into the hall and slammed the door shut behind me. About five seconds later I realized I had locked myself out without my phone, wallet or shoes (or keys, of course, which I haven't made copies of yet to stash).

That was not a nice moment. I didn't particularly want to get back into my apartment right then, but…For a little while I think I was just in shock with the sudden turn of events that had left me with no options that I could see at that moment. I just couldn't believe that I was actually in that situation.

Not liking to impose on neighbors, and thinking maybe I could figure something out, I spent about 45 minutes or an hour trying to get back into my apartment without breaking a window. No luck, no luck. Meanwhile I watched the bat flitting around and crawling about my blinds.

Finally I broke down and woke up my next door neighbor who lent me the use of his phone and suggested that I call the fire department. God bless the fire department and civil servants everywhere. They came, with a full crew and a truck and an off-duty police officer and got out a ladder and got into my apartment through a bedroom window. The fireman walked through my room and opened my door, dodging the bat, and came back down. I quickly went upstairs, peeked into my apartment, saw the coast was clear for a moment and went in to grab my keys, phone, wallet and some shoes. Then I fled back outside.

One of the fireman recommended that I leave the window open for a while and watch from outside as the bat should quickly find its way back to the great outdoors. My family had tried that before with success, and it's much less traumatic and friendly than trying to capture or kill it, so I thanked him, they drove off, and I settled down to watch my window.

For a half hour or so I watched the bat periodically flit back and forth across my bedroom, willing it unsuccessfully to escape. After a bit it disappeared for a little while, and then to my numb shock I watched a second bat fly into my apartment. Talk about a Homer Simpson Moment. D'oh! It flew around for a while, but did not manage to fly back out. This is a pretty big window, open wide! It's like they wanted to stay in there. Maybe the bug hunting inside was good.

After watching for another few minutes, both bats disappeared for a little bit and I walked up my back steps to peek into my living room and kitchen. I saw one bat hanging from the ceiling, but nothing else. I decided the coast was clear enough for the moment and went back around and through my front entrance and into my room to get a couple things, as I had decided by this point to spend the night somewhere else. I was reaching the limit of my endurance, and stress and anxiety was flooding through my system, making me nearly ill. As I left my apartment I saw both bats, one still hanging from the ceiling and the other flying around my kitchen. I drove to where I work and spent a completely sleepless night there - even if it had been a feather bed I never would have gotten a single wink.

When I finally got up, I left a message with Newton Animal Control, and later in the morning we met at my place. We quickly located the one bat and he neatly snagged it in his net and set it free outside, and then we unsuccessfully searched the apartment for the other.

That's where things stand now. I'm at work, and I know that there is probably still a bat in my apartment that will come out later this evening. I guess the only thing to do is go back and wait for it to show, open a window again and hope it leaves, and hope more bats don't enter. If it doesn't show, that's even worse; I'll never relax again in my apartment, always expecting it to pop up at any moment. Right now I feel like I'll never relax there again anyway, now that I know that this is a bat house (I know that it didn't come in through a window, or at least 90% sure - because of my bat phobia, I'm always very careful about windows and screens).

Am I overreacting? Of course. Is there anything I can do about it? Probably, but it doesn't feel like it at this moment. Right now, I feel like I've lost my apartment, my place of peace and repose - all because of a stupid little bat that I still have to face later on this evening.

With some bit of self-awareness, I can also see that I'm not really afraid of the bat - I'm afraid of being afraid of the bat. We have nothing to fear but fear itself, right? I know that as long as I am careful not to handle the bat it will not hurt me and in fact will go out of its way to avoid hitting me. I am afraid of the fear, of the surprise and shock, of the anxiety. I am afraid!

Aggghhh, please wish me luck.

Monday, August 13, 2007

11 Sunsets

Well, I didn't really do my duty this year in photographing my vacation in Canada. Apologies especially to family - I got no still pictures of people other than myself, only video, which I haven't figured out how to attach or link yet. No doubt it's very easy, but I lack patience.

When I think back on vacations, however, the experience eventually coalesces into a series of snapshots of memory, anyway; vignettes, scenes, set pieces, whatever (Is it possible for something to 'coalesce' into separate elements?). Rather than remembering time spent as the continuous flow of experience and sense it really was, I think on images, brief moments or events, often never thinking of or recalling the connective tissues between them.

A dense, deep purple blueberry cobbler, swimming in a warm perfume of fruit and sugar.

An overactive, bellicose hummingbird chasing a red-breasted nuthatch from limb to limb of a ponderosa pine, as if the confused nuthatch had any interest in the hanging jar of sugarwater that the hummingbird was so keen on.

A tense standoff between a small brown crayfish and an even smaller minnow over a choice spot at the side of a nice rock.

Moving through several Irish reels, myself on fiddle and my cousin Brad on guitar, as the grubby, enticing odors of oil, beer batter and walleye waft around us. 'The Maid Behind the Bar' was particularly successful. Less so 'Jenny's Welcome to Charlie' but what a title!

Playing duets with my sister Esme, violin and cello, and helping her with some practicing tips that came very slowly to me in my musical efforts over the years.
Esme, remember-
1) Before you start: deep breath, fingers in place, bow on string - start cleanly and thoughtfuly.
2) Work on short musical phrases, repeatedly, and listen carefully and correct the mistakes that you hear.
3) Don't practice wrong, practice right! (Sounds like the title of a self-help book, right?) When you start playing a passage well, keep playing it until it comes naturally and automatically.

One day cruising out to the big bay to fish the Gull Island reef, we passed by a mama and baby bear swimming between two islands, a breathtaking sight that I'll never forget.

Listening to the late evening calls and songs of several loons as I lay out on the dock watching the stars appear and brighten in the night sky, brushing the mosquitos away from my legs.

Two cormorants swimming behind an enormous white pelican, just their snaking necks rising from the water, likes remoras following a shark.

A sudden burst of avian activity from a mixed-species flock through a stand of ponderosas, where a moment before there had been nothing but the wind and a gull circling over the reeds and then I marked: yellow warbler, chestnut-sided warbler, black and white warbler, blackburnian warbler, yellow-rumped warbler, nashville warbler, red-breasted nuthatch, black-capped chickadee, red-eyed vireo, and a puzzling couple of sparrows - Savannah or Lincoln? Looked more like a savannah, though no yellow lores, But we're not close to any fields, really.

A sunset for every night, rarely spectacular but always unique - one night just a warm, gentle orange glow arching over the horizon in an otherwise clear, deepening blue sky, another night just three small clouds backlit and outlined in brilliant fire, interior dark and stormy, slowly drifting.

Heavy swells crashing through a wide expanse of reeds, whitecaps cresting from the steady intense wind crossing the open miles of Whitefish bay, closing my eyes and just feeling the day.

The thrill of pulling in my first Northern Pike on a fly-rod. Kudos to a green Clouser minnow (and to dad for choosing it).

Thanks to everybody up there for their hospitality and companionship - Dad, Lisa, Esme, Brad, Eric, Nik, Jim, Sue, Harper, Cambo, Bob, Ellen, Bill and Diana.

I hope everybody is enjoying their summer!