Along with Will Shakespeare, T.S. Eliot and Noel Coward, among others, the British can also lay claim to memorable (if anonymous) sign authors. Witness this sign on an iron gate outside St. James's Square in London. First there is the sweet misspelling, "bycycle," which suggests cycling by things. So much more poetic than bicycle, which refers to the mechanics of two wheels and expands to tricycle for three wheels (hmmm, consider for a second, "trycycle"). Then there are the polite phrases, "causing obstruction," "danger to pedestrians," and "Please leave them elsewhere." It's the afternoon tea of signs. Who could refuse? By contrast, what would the New York City version say? "Don't even think of parking here!"
Flower shots can be as clichéd as sunsets and puppies. Most of us know that. Yet, time after time, we are seduced into trying to freeze and hold captivating natural beauty. Maybe we try to grab and store it photographically because we know that memory will fail us. But so often, the photo disappoints us too. Shrunk and in 2-D, what was inspiring in real life comes out banal and unremarkable. When I saw this spectacular open tulip "singing in the rain," I couldn't help but try to capture the irrepressible joy I felt. There's nothing fancy or unusual about the shot, but I like it. Now I'm indulging myself again by posting it.
If March looked in the mirror, what would it see? Most people think of March Madness as a basketball tournament, but I'd argue the real MM is its crazy weather. The month has a whopping identity crisis. It can't gracefully transition from winter to spring. It rages with snowstorms from its rapidly depleting stock. It taunts you with warm, jacket-shedding moments. Erratic and volatile, it knocks you over with furious winds. Blizzards jump out of nowhere. Temperatures plunge and then rise. Snow falls furiously and then melts. Sometimes all of these things happen in one fragmented day. March can't make up its mind as it blows hot and cold. Only its bright, white light is consistent. And then, just when you can't bear it any longer, you see crocus heads pop up through dirt or snow. March has thrown down its white flag and surrendered to spring.
Doesn't this colorful glass pitcher display look like rows of giant gum balls with lips and handles? And wouldn't it be convenient if gum balls did come with delicate handles? What would they be made of? My money's on rock sugar. Of course you'd have to stick your pinky out as you lifted the tiny gum ball handle to your mouth.
Mysterious light switches annoy me everywhere I travel. But these Italian designs deliver an appealing low-tech solution. They're whimsical and speak a universal language. The efficiency (or not) of light switches has always fascinated me. When I was twelve, I was bothered by an overhead ceiling light with a switch far away from my bed. My idea was to tape a very long red ribbon to the top of the switch. The ribbon ended at the side of my bed. By pulling down on it with a delicate tug, I could turn off the overhead light without getting up. The ribbon was one-directional and extremely low-cost, and it lasted for years. Soon switches themselves may be obsolete, due to high-tech improvements. We can already turn lights on and off by clapping, speaking, motion sensors or an off-premise smart phone. What do you think? Is turning on a light a burden or a joy?
I'm always looking for ideas to change up my life in little ways. You never know when that one small change will have a domino effect that leads to the big Eureka! This clear globe of colorful mixed salad totally amused me. It was served at breakfast in our small Italian hotel. It reminded me of the little forest terrariums I used to create as a kid and also of those enticing gum ball-style machines with plastic balls containing surprise toys. Imagine if a ball with fresh greens had rolled out of the metal chute! This ingenious presentation made me stop, look and admire. Suddenly, breakfast salad seemed like a perfectly compelling idea. And it has ever since.
An angry blizzard wraps and quiets the city, slowing its rapid pulse. Furious sheets of white whip sideways and pummel faces. Sidewalks betray feet and lay icy traps for innocents. Here and there, handcuffed bicycles signal their surrender. Parked against a curb, a bright red car shouts its resistance.
It's hard to talk about love and not sound corny or clichéd. But it's a critically important subject right now. What's the antidote to hate? Love. What's the antidote to fear? Again, love. A particularly useful practice for stress is compassion meditation, also called loving-kindness meditation. The point of this meditation is to find, open and renew channels of love through meditation. Once located, the feelings of loving-kindness are directed toward loved ones, self, people you are neutral to, AND enemies. I've been recommending this particular kind of meditation to people who are particularly anxious right now. Here are downloads to try from my first teacher, Christopher Germer, PhD. A week after I received the love magnet (see my previous post, Agency of Kind), I got a follow-up love letter from the universe (or so it seemed). On a brutally cold winter day, I passed this lit "LOVE" sign in the window of an antiques shop. As I stopped to take its photo, a joyous child skipped by with raised arms. The interior and exterior reflection with blue sky beyond made a spontaneous collage of hope. Suddenly, I felt warmer.
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.