Love is mysterious. So is this kitchen magnet. An extroverted man with a box of them gave me one for free near the entrance to the Women's March NYC last week. It seemed rude to refuse it. I mean, who isn't for love? There were free peace magnets too. But the little gift left me with questions. Why was he doing it? Was it his personal way of making a difference? Does it broadcast an unknown-to-me organized cause or movement? Was it left over from a wedding, political or religious event? Did he just think it was cool to print up love magnets to hand out to strangers? Does he share my firm belief that there is agency in daily kindness? Kindness seems more important than ever now. Even Nietzsche, a nihilist if ever there was one, believed kindness was one of the "most curative herbs and agents in human intercourse." Kindness, unlike even love, is defined in part by a complete lack of self-interest. It asks for nothing in return. It's a standalone virtue. Could it be among the most important political actions that can be practiced daily? What do you think?
I was waffling on whether or not to make and wear a pink #Pussyhat to tomorrow's March NYC (the knit hats are meant to create a striking united visual statement and defiantly reclaim the term "pussy"). But who could resist the opportunity to learn a new craft, bond with fellow female artisans, and express solidarity one stitch at a time? I resolved my conflict over pink by finding this gorgeous ombré yarn, whose color is literally named "Dirty Hippie," and I learned how to crochet from a kind stranger in the store that sold me the yarn. Later today I ran across an ancient male musician in the natural foods store wearing a lavender knit cap that looked suspiciously like a pussyhat, ears and all. "My God," I thought, "is he in a pussyhat?" He was the first guy I'd seen in one, though I'd seen several young women in pink ones on the streets. My question was answered when I overheard him talking to the guys behind the corner. "I'm wearing a pussyhat!" he said proudly. "It's for women." The young guys behind the corner were simultaneously hysterical and skeptical. "He's telling the truth," I said, "and I've got mine in my purse!" I pulled it out and waved it at them. They were dumbstruck. "Thank you," said the lavender hat wearer, "as they just know me as a crazy musician who makes up crazy stories." I'd love to know where he got his and whether he might have knit it himself. If I ever see him again I'll be sure to ask.
My early memories of Europe were formed by experiences I never had. My first walks through Paris were all virtual reality: I pored over books of graphic, moody and seedy street photography by the incredible grab-masters André Kertész, Eugène Atget, Henri Cartier-Bresson and Brassaï. Now I continue to look for the Europe of that lens, no matter how modern it gets. If I have a hotel room with a street view, I always look down before I look out. On this early morning in Florence, I woke up to the flat-tire sound of delivery trucks bumping over wet cobblestones ( setts for pedants). I opened the casement window and smelled the oddly metallic rinse of European rain. I looked and saw solitary figures making their way on blue-washed streets past a local perfume shop. Fellow humans on their way to...what? Work, school, a lover? I ran for my camera.
What about skipping the traditional resolutions list this January and opting for a manifesto instead? The idea came to me after visiting Julian Rosefeldt's "MANIFESTO" installation at the Park Avenue Armory. The show has thirteen screens playing simultaneously in the Armory's dark cavernous space. They show videos of Cate Blanchett performing extremely different characters who interrupt their daily work to recite artists' and writers' manifestos in otherworldly singsong voices. Blanchett's capacity to perform diverse roles ranging from homeless man to female CEO inspired me to think about change and how we all hope to "perform" better in the new year. Maybe if we think of acting, instead of being, the changes we desire become more possible. Manifestos are most often artistic or political, but I think they can be personal too. Instead of resolutions, or god forbid, that outdated notion of a personal mission statement, a personal manifesto for change and action seems perfectly in tune with 2017. I intend to write mine. How about you?
Bless the silly soul who decided to do this. Imagine waking up, thinking, "Today I'm going to marker me some ping-pong balls and stick 'em on a tree!" And the positioning above the ring left by the sawn branch couldn't be more perfect. Score! Props to you, street artist, whoever you are. Here's to random acts of silliness as the antidote to snark.
This week I received a "Thank You" note written on a manual typewriter that made my day. I promptly fetched this old Olympia deluxe portable out of the closet to fire off a thank you for the thank you. Somehow a 5-second email exchange would have taken all the fun and romance out of it. And my fingers got a gym-level workout, too.
There's a Slow Food movement from Italy that started as an antidote to Fast Food, so why not a Slow Words community too? It could honor the nutritional value of taking a little time to think about what you're writing. To braise, not microwave, your thoughts. Creative daydreamers who still prefer pecking at a manual typewriter or even writing by hand on yellow-lined pads would join for sure. One of the many cool things about typewriters is they need you to go slow. The QWERTY keyboard design was actually designed to slow people down enough to give the type hammers sufficient time to return to position.
Courier typeface makes my heart beat faster. It's the Humphrey Bogart of type.
Too be honest, I do love writing on my computer because I do so much damn rewriting. I don't miss the days of White-out, correction tape, carbons and labor-intensive retyping. But the dark smell of ink and the staccato sound of a manual machine beckon me. It's a whole newsroom in a box. This is how manuals work. You can buy yours here. Then sit down, breathe and relax into some nice slow writing. Poems and thank you's, you're welcome.
It's a little known quirk of New York City law that anyone can sell Christmas trees on the street in December. All you need is permission from the owners of the store near your stand. Right after Thanksgiving, emerald forests sprout overnight on city sidewalks as tree sellers lug beautiful firs, balsams and spruces in from the country. The disruption of cold grey concrete with fragrant dark green needles is sudden and miraculous. My simple walk down city sidewalks becomes a soothing and soul-restoring forest bath.
The guardians of these overnight forests are the sidewalk tree guys (and gals), who drive and fly in from all over to tend their little patch of green. More than a few of them are hardy outdoor guides who might take you kayaking or river rafting in remote places in season. Their outdoor skills help them survive this grueling winter camp-out. They spend long freezing hours out in the cold and sleep in nearby parked cars and vans. They work in twos and threes and have sellers on duty all 24-hours, just in case someone needs a tree at 3 am. Would you?
They're super strong and constantly cheerful. Nobody wants to buy their Christmas tree from a Grinch, I guess. But imagine bringing an 8-foot tree up to the fifth floor of a walk-up. Ouch. I have seen majestic cousins of the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree on my corner just waiting to be bought by some penthouse owner with 15-foot ceilings and wrapped up and delivered by hand. It's not an easy job, selling and delivering joy.
Another NYC quirk is that everyone believes their local tree guy is just the best. The city teems with "best guys" on every corner. Articles abound. There are a lot of fun facts about the tree man's perspective in this article and video. A few blocks away, two New Yorkers even made a short documentary about their "best guy" called "Tree Man."
But my corner guy IS the best, hands down. His trees are gorgeous and full, and, like people, come in all shapes and sizes. And his accessories make the outfit. He turns sidewalk drab into fab by creating a party piazza with overhead lights, rows of wonderful trees, lit flying pigs, twinkling white lights, glowing ornaments and bulb-wire presents. For non-tree buyers, he offers whimsical folk art like hand-carved pigs, snowmen, reindeers with branch ears, and even a wood Menorah for sale. A hand-lettered cardboard sign hung on a stripped down fir with branches only at the top says "Canadian Palm Tree." This is a tree guy with humor and imagination, who says he wants city walkers to feel and remember the magic of childhood.
Grateful neighbors honor and reward their tree guys by dropping off gifts of coffee, soup, sandwiches, blankets, music or sometimes even offering a hot shower. Even people who aren't in the market for trees like to stop, chat and help them out. Joy is contagious.
After taking his photo, I saw my tree guy in a whole new light. Check out the stars around him. They weren't there when I took the photo. Now I have physical evidence that there's magic in these trees, their tenders and our sidewalks. You just have to look a little closer...and remember.
Shelves beg a million questions. On bookshelves, for example, better to arrange by height and width, by category, or even alphabetical? And what about bar shelves? Designers of the most beautiful hand-milled bars often leave the view of the shelves behind the bar to the whims of the bartender.
At Agern, a 110-seat Scandinavian restaurant tucked away inside a new (and beautifully) renovated space inside Grand Central Terminal, the thoughtful arrangement of glasses and bottles on backlit bar shelves masters this design dilemma. Though the restaurant is completely internal, the stunning jewel-like design creates a rectangular light "window" with chevron-patterned glass panes behind the bar that opens up the space. The inviting array of artisan shapes and arty labels bring to mind a magical alchemist's shop. And while the general arrangement doesn't show a slavish devotion to height or width, it captivates precisely because the bottles are not uniform or mass-manufactured and the liquids inside them glow.
Also behind the bar are two of the most professional and friendly young bartenders working anywhere. Cheers to them! You can't help but admire how they work to maintain the view.
I'm obsessed. Let's start with the compellingly mysterious lyrics. Here is the first paragraph, which is about musical–or perhaps any–creation as spiritual quest (for full lyrics click link):
"Now, I've heard there was a secret chord
That David played, and it pleased the Lord
But you don't really care for music, do you?
It goes like this, the fourth, the fifth
The minor fall, the major lift
The baffled king composing hallelujah."
Then there is the music itself, which fits the haunting, melancholic and bittersweet emotion of the lyrics. Taken together, they create a soul-wrapping spiritual description of love, attachment, faith, disappointment and sacrifice. I could listen to it again and again, trying to crack the meaning like an unbreakable egg. The words baffle me, but I totally get the artist's intent.
My mood post-election, Leonard Cohen's death on November 7, 2016 and the coming holiday season have all made his "Hallelujah" my perfect December anthem. I play downloaded sheet music from Scribd on the piano in the morning. I write while streaming different covers of "Hallelujah" from Spotify. I read web articles and quorums arguing who has the best cover (contenders include K.D. Lang, Rufus Wainwright, Jeff Buckley, Willie Nelson, and of course Cohen himself).
The new album, "A Pentatonix Christmas" (October 21, 2016), was released a month before Cohen died but presciently includes a completely spirit-lifting and more hopeful a capella version of the song. I love it. If you don't stream music, I'd suggest ordering that. While you're at it, get the two-disc "Essential Leonard Cohen," which has the gold standard of the song (I love all the covers, but I'd argue that nobody does it better than the gravel-voiced Cohen himself.)
I heard Renée Fleming sing a heartbreakingly memorable "Hallelujah," at the Aspen Music Festival in July (mentioned in my blog post, November 10, 2016). It is on her album "Dark Hope" (2010) and you can listen to it on YouTube here.
Fleming has also sung many of the great solos from the master of the original "Hallelujah," aka George Frideric Handel. Composed in 1741, Handel's "Hallelujah" is unconflicted and triumphant in expressing praise for the Lord. It's pure joy and faith in music form.
I don't need snow at Christmas but I do need to hear at least one live version of "Messiah." Otherwise, it doesn't feel like the holiday season to me. Extra points for singalong or boy's choir. But let's face it, I'm always surprised by how, er, shall we say complete the full-length version is at a listening time of two hours plus. Truthfully, I'm a Pavlovian dog just sitting and waiting for the choir to ring its "Hallelujah" bell and I can't think of much else. Same with "Ode to Joy" in Beethoven's Ninth Symphony in D minor, Op. 125. What, you too? Hallelujah!
Now, back to Cohen, and Kate McKinnon's rendition on "Saturday Night LIve" as the perfect complement to post-election mood. Cohen's final stanza is about trying, failing, but not giving up:
"I did my best, it wasn't much
I couldn't feel, so I tried to touch
I've told the truth, I didn't come to fool you
And even though it all went wrong
I'll stand before the lord of song
With nothing on my tongue but hallelujah"
And so I won't. And you shouldn't either.
This year why not skip the partridge and do the 12 Days of Christmas this way?
On the first day of Christmas, my true lib gave to me…a gift pledge to NAACP (see list below for full name).
On the second day of Christmas, my true lib gave to me…2 ADL and a gift pledge to NAACP.
On the third day of Christmas, my true lib gave to me…3 Fresh PENs, 2 ADL, and a gift pledge to NAACP.
On the fourth day of Christmas, my true lib gave to me…4 Rock the Vote, 3 Fresh PENs, 2 ADL, and a gift pledge to NAACP.
On the fifth day of Christmas, my true lib gave to me…5 EMILY’s List! 4 Rock the Vote, 3 Fresh PENs, 2 ADL, and a gift pledge to NAACP.
On the sixth day of Christmas, my true lib gave to me…6 Sierra Clubbing, 5 EMILY’s List! 4 Rock the Vote, 3 Fresh PENs, 2 ADL, and a gift pledge to NAACP.
On the seventh day of Christmas, my true lib gave to me…7 HRCing, 6 Sierra Clubbing, 5 EMILY’s List! 4 Rock the Vote, 3 Fresh PENs, 2 ADL, and a gift pledge to NAACP.
On the eighth day of Christmas, my true lib gave to me…8 SPLC, 7 HRCing , 6 Sierra Clubbing, 5 EMILY’s List! 4 Rock the Vote, 3 Fresh PENs, 2 ADL, and a gift pledge to NAACP.
On the ninth day of Christmas, my true lib gave to me…9 NOWing, 8 SPLC, 7 HRCing , 6 Sierra Clubbing, 5 EMILY’s List! 4 Rock the Vote, 3 Fresh PENs, 2 ADL, and a gift pledge to NAACP.
On the tenth day of Christmas, my true lib gave to me…10 Lambda Legal, 9 NOWing, 8 SPLC, 7 HRCing , 6 Sierra Clubbing, 5 EMILY’s List! 4 Rock the Vote, 3 Fresh PENs, 2 ADL, and a gift pledge to NAACP.
On the eleventh day of Christmas, my true lib gave to me…11 NARFing,10 Lambda Legal, 9 NOWing, 8 SPLC, 7 HRCing , 6 Sierra Clubbing, 5 EMILY’s List! 4 Rock the Vote, 3 Fresh PENs, 2 ADL, and a gift pledge to NAACP.
On the 12th day of Christmas, my true lib gave to me…12 Safe Passage Project, 11 NARFing,10 Lambda Legal, 9 NOWing, 8 SPLC, 7 HRCing , 6 Sierra Clubbing, 5 EMILY’s List! 4 Rock the Vote, 3 Fresh PENs, 2 ADL, and a gift pledge to NAACP.
If you like this adaptation of “The 12 Days of Christmas,” sing it out loud and proud (it works)! Share it with your friends. And click the ❤️ below this list.
NAACP: National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. “Join us in the fight to protect our lives, our rights, our future. We need you more than ever.”
ADL: Anti-Defamation League. “Come together. Fight anti-semitism and bigotry. Defend civil liberties.”
PEN America: “Louder together. Join us and help defend free-expression.”
Rock the Vote: “Building political power for young people. Who show up.”
EMILY’s List: “We ignite change by getting pro-choice Democratic women elected to office.”
HRC: Human Rights Campaign. “Advocating for LGBTQ equality. Love will conquer hate.”
SPLC: Southern Poverty Law Center. “The SPLC is dedicated to fighting hate and bigotry and to seeking justice for the most vulnerable members of our society.”
NOW: National Organization for Women. “Keep fighting for feminism! Stop attacking women’s health!”
Lambda Legal: “…the oldest and largest national organization whose mission is to achieve full recognition of the civil rights of lesbians, gay men, bisexuals, transgender people and those with HIV through impact litigation, education and public policy work.”
NARF: Native American Rights Fund. “NARF is fully committed to continue our right to protect Native Rights and expand tribal sovereignty–and fight we will. We stand by our commitment as ‘Modern Day Warriors’ to do so.”
Safe Passage Project: “No child should face immigration court alone.”
Glaciers, like clouds, have evocative shapes that remind you of dreamy and mythical beings. The blue color created because the deep ice absorbs all spectrum colors except blue can be stunning and surreal. I've always been fascinated by ice sculptures at parties and winter festivals, but glacial forms and floating sea ice are even more awesome. In the photo above, I saw a dolphin wearing a party hat riding the back of a dinosaur. Or possibly some sort of mythical dolphin-unicorn beast–a dolphicorn. What do you see?
You know what I'm truly grateful for this Thanksgiving? Glaciers and pristine wilderness. Both are essential to the long term health of our shared planet, and both can still be found in Antarctica. I took this photo of floating ice fragments and glaciers off the coast of the Antarctic Peninsula about ten years ago. I wonder how much less there is of this ice mass now? Ice shrinkage of the Peninsula has been accelerating since 1996, as confirmed in a 2016 study from NASA. I was amazed to discover when I traveled to Antarctica that you can not only see, but also hear, the sounds of temperature warming. When large chunks of ice separate from the ice sheet, they make violent cracking and booming sounds. It sounds a little like construction demolition. You could say it's the sound of Mother Nature blowing up. Will glaciers become our century's dinosaurs? Today, for now, I give thanks they're still here.
The voluptuous beauty mentioned in my October 24 post, "Sexy Pumpkin," was beginning to get a little green around the edges. I decided to try roasting her for an upcoming slate of pumpkin muffins on the Thanksgiving menu. I've had success with roasting brussels sprouts whole on the stalk, so I decided to just plop the whole pumpkin in the oven. Here she is before going into heat, reflecting in all her majestic glory. The operation was a success, kind of. The pumpkin flesh was easily cut and scooped after baking, and no fingers were severed. However, it was indescribably tasteless and bitter. I'm not sure whether I went wrong with choice of pumpkin, her age, or my cooking method. But the object lesson is sometimes it's better to admire than consume.
Construction peepholes are irresistible. For people like me, the chance to watch large machines at work as they dig and move dirt stops time cold. The view is never as surprising and disturbing as Marcel DuChamp's Étant Donnés at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, but I always think of that weird and mysterious artwork nonetheless whenever I stop to sneak a peek through a hole in the wall at a building site.
Just a day after I posted on how Leonard Cohen's music was so right for these times, his family announced his death. The news was filled with reverent eulogies for this soulful, voice of our times, and Saturday Night Live opened with actress Kate McKinnon dressed in white singing his meditative ballad, "Hallelujah." Then she turned to the camera. "I'm not giving up," she said, "and neither should you."
Somehow, post-election, the choice of Bob Dylan for Nobel Prize in Literature feels more prescient than ever. But another artist that feels particularly right for these times is Dylan's peer legendary singer, songwriter and poet, Leonard Cohen. Earlier this summer, I heard Renée Fleming sing the most incomparably beautiful arrangement of his classic, Hallelujah, with the Aspen Festival Orchestra. Since this arrangement hasn't been recorded yet and I was desperate for more, I started listening to it on The Essential Leonard Cohen (2002) and rediscovering other familiar favorites of his like Suzanne, The Sisters of Mercy, So Long Marianne, and Hey, That's No Way to Say Goodbye. This fall, I was encouraged to see that I wasn't the only one thinking about Cohen: out of the blue my mother gave me an old CD of his as a gift in September, a friend put his music on at a party in early October and David Remnick profiled him in the October 17, 2016 issue of The New Yorker. A Zen Buddhist, Cohen was born in Canada in 1934 and feels as relevant today as ever: his last tour was from 2008-2010 and people I know who heard it said his voice continues to impress. Not only is Cohen the most rocking octogenarian around, his "Old Ideas" are as relevant and inspiring as ever.
My thoughts and questions as Americans head to the polls today to elect our 45th President: Why do we vote on a workday instead of a weekday? Why are absentee ballots impossible to get in certain states no matter how often you request them? Why don't we have early voting in all states? Why isn't gerrymandering illegal? How can we make sure our voting locations and election results are secure and protected? Why don't we have a non-partisan medical fitness test for presidential candidates? Why don't we have civic education in our schools that teaches students to look beyond the popular appeal of the candidates to actually evaluating their platform and policies? How could we implement completely protected online voting with paper ballot back-up? What keeps some eligible citizens from exercising their most important constitutional right? How can we describe American exceptionalism in regard to voting? Can we?
As the world's population shifts to cities, it's time to think about where to find nature. I've long felt that New York City's abundant great parks are what make the city livable: in other words, not the buildings and streets themselves but the green spaces between them. The lack of nature can make you so anxious and depressed that there is even a term, Nature Deficit Disorder (NDD), for children who don't get get outdoors enough. Meanwhile, the healing Japanese medicinal art of Shinrin Yoku, forest bathing, holds that guided sensory walks in nature lead to increased feelings of well-being.
But still, sidewalks can be harrowing places. New York City walking for the non-tourist is not a leisurely stroll but often a nerve-wracking competitive sport. Most streets do not have enough shade or trees, and there are few places to sit and take a break besides bus stop and mid-avenue benches in the middle of traffic. What a lovely surprise then to find this pop-up rock park on a way west Chelsea block.
A little rock sit was the perfect antidote for my pre-election stress and general urban ills.
As I sat on the granite ledge, I remembered the inspiring views from the peaks of New Hampshire's Presidentials. The granite ledges felt very rooting and took me out of the city's frenetic pace. The rock stop seemed to work well for the arty guys shown above too, even if they did continue checking their phones while they sat or leaned.
Here's what you can do with a city pet rock. You can take a lunch or coffee break with Vitamin N. You can think back to all the mountains you've ever climbed, the views you've enjoyed and the sunsets you've relished. Or you can just strike a pose and check your email. But even if you don't unplug completely, it's still way cooler than sitting on an ordinary wooden park bench. My vote is for big, beautiful slabs of granite all over the city.
What with all the 2016 election craziness, the rampant bigotry and depressing news like this recent study of a surge in opioid poisonings of toddlers, it's not hard to feel sometimes like an alien in your own beloved country. I literally can't believe my own eyes. So this futuristic big-headed mannequin, seen at Bloomingdale's New York, perfectly captured my November vibe right down to her big saucer glasses. After I played with the shot in Mobile Monet I had my "aha" moment: This is it! American life this election season feels like an out of control comic-book world where good and evil forces battle daily for domination.
Is it possible for flowers to photo bomb? I could swear this very urban sunflower found growing on a city rooftop farm is saying "Boo"! I love how a foreground object changes scale and heightens impact. The applied chrome filter reminds me of the heightened realism in a David Lynch movie. This sunflower is scary, but still a lot nicer looking than the the giant man-eating plant, Audrey II, in Little Shop of Horrors.