Tuesday, December 31, 2013

2014 at Last

Happy New Year, everyone! I hope you enjoy it, wherever you choose to spend it.

My gifts to you this evening are a poem by W. S. Merwin and some vintage cards from the New York Public Library's digital archive.

To the New Year
By W. S. Merwin

With what stillness at last
you appear in the valley
your first sunlight reaching down
to touch the tips of a few
high leaves that do not stir
as though they had not noticed
and did not know you at all
then the voice of a dove calls
from far away in itself
to the hush of the morning

so this is the sound of you
here and now whether or not
anyone hears it this is
where we have come with our age
our knowledge such as it is
and our hopes such as they are
invisible before us
untouched and still possible



Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Ring the Bells

“Christmas is doing a little something extra for someone.” 
― Charles M. Schulz

On Christmas Eve I spent some time browsing through the New York Public Library's extensive digital archive of vintage holiday cards. Although I'm not a believer, I have many great memories of childhood Christmases. What I learned: In the early 1900s, bells and holly were common themes and the red and green "Christmas colors" were not yet set in stone. Cards came in blues, yellows, pinks — every imaginable color, really.

While you look at a few cards I liked, listen to Cat Power's version of my favorite Christmas song. It's about hope in a time of uncertainty, and the older I get the more I understand that this is our constant state.

Now, to the cards. Here's one I think of as the Rocking Horse Loser. Did I mention that many of the children depicted on old cards looked peculiar?

Here is a tinted photographic card. It's a bit like the family photo cards people send out these days...but off in an entertainingly wacky way.

This is my favorite of the cards I found (admittedly, there are over 1,500 more that I never got to). I love the way Santa, the children and the dog are piled into the little bedecked roadster — steering wheel on the right — and the little boy in what could be a bellhop's uniform is waving. The sender addressed it on Christmas Eve, 1906, but I can't quite make out the signature.

I'll leave you with the exquisite, haunting final paragraph of James Joyce's "The Dead," which begins at a holiday party and ends in eternity.
"A few light taps upon the pane made him turn to the window. It had begun to snow again. He watched sleepily the flakes, silver and dark, falling obliquely against the lamplight. The time had come for him to set out on his journey westward. Yes, the newspapers were right: snow was general all over Ireland. It was falling on every part of the dark central plain, on the treeless hills, falling softly upon the Bog of Allen and, farther westward, softly falling into the dark mutinous Shannon waves. It was falling, too, upon every part of the lonely churchyard on the hill where Michael Furey lay buried. It lay thickly drifted on the crooked crosses and headstones, on the spears of the little gate, on the barren thorns. His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead."

Saturday, December 14, 2013

The Leaves of 2013

"Delicious autumn! My very soul is wedded to it, and if I were a bird I would fly about the earth seeking the successive autumns."
~ George Eliot

As I write this, snow is falling in New York City. Autumn's colors, which came late, are now gone. But they were glorious while they lasted.

This year, in addition to posting leaves that I found, I asked friends near and far to contribute their own favorites. As a result, this post offers a bountiful array of nature's beauty.

Give this a listen while you look at the leaves — Van Morrison's "Autumn Song".

This is the first leaf I found in my neighborhood; it was a maple bigger than my hand, and it seemed to contain the entire history of its journey from green to red and gold.

The basswoods, most of which contain miniatures of themselves within themselves, are a favorite.

This is a fiery tree that I came across while I was driving on Long Island. I pulled over to the curb so I could take this picture of it.

But enough of my neighborhood. Diane Baranello, a life coach and fellow member of the board of New York Women in Communications, sent magnificent scans of leaves and flowers she's pressed.

Pam Carlson, who describes herself as a "cheerful secular humanist with a cynical misanthropic streak," sent three lovely scans gathered near her home in Marin County. Plums, starfish-like sweetgum (?), ginko and two other yellows that I don't recognize. Update: Pam says the large one is a fig and the smallest is an oak.

My old friend Briggs Meyer — we met decades ago when we were students at the School of Visual Arts — sent autumn ginkos and maples from San Francisco.

"The autumn leaves blew over the moonlit pavement in such a way as to make the girl who was moving there seem fixed to a sliding walk, letting the motion of the wind and leaves carry her forward..."
~ Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451

Author and professor Dr. Harrison Solow sent photographs of vast piles of extravagantly multicolored leaves from her travels in Northern California, Wyoming and Idaho. Do click on them so you can see them larger.

"The tints of autumn...a mighty flower garden blossoming under the spell of the enchanter, frost."
~ John Greenleaf Whittier

Want more leaves? See my posts from previous years:

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Misty Days Remind Me of Mom

"The fog was where I wanted to be."
~ Eugene O'Neill, Long Day's Journey into Night

I was one of those children whose idea of a good time was spending a whole weekend watching horror movies on our black-and-white TV. We lived in a large old house surrounded by ancient, heavy trees. Misty, rainy days take me right back there. I can hear the water falling. And I hear my mother's music.

My mother was a shy woman who grew up with three aggressive sisters and parents who didn't get along. But I don't think that's why her musical taste was so melancholy; it's just the way she was.

And she adored music. She played classical music on the piano and listened to music on our bulky hi-fi cabinet whenever she could.

Below, I've included three songs that make me think of mom whenever I hear them. Sorry about the embedded ads, though. So: Ella Fitzgerald singing "Where or When", Eva Cassidy singing "Autumn Leaves" and Erroll Garner playing "Misty".

"It is not the clear-sighted who rule the world. Great achievements are accomplished in a warm, blessed fog."
~ Joseph Conrad

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Magritte again

"To be a surrealist means barring from your mind all remembrance of what you have seen and being always on the lookout for what has never been."
~ René  Magritte

Ceci n'est pas une pipe (this is not a pipe), René Magritte 1929
Property of Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Los Angeles, California
In 1965, when I was in high school, New York's Museum of Modern Art held a sweeping exhibition of the work of René Magritte. My friend Dawn and I went together, not quite sure what to expect. As we walked from room to room, taking in the gigantic green apples, the flaming tubas, the men in bowler hats raining from the sky, the landscape views with landscape paintings in them, we were overcome with giggles. It was pure, exhilarating joy. We were puzzled by the reactions of the adults, who seemed so serious. (Of course, as Dawn recently pointed out, the adults no doubt thought we were obnoxious.)

Now, 48 years later, MoMA has another Magritte exhibition. Titled "The Mystery of the Ordinary, 1926-1938", it chronicles the years when Magritte and his fellow surrealists were developing their ideas about art. When I went to this show (twice so far), I only giggled a few times — I've become one of the serious adults, apparently — but I learned much I hadn't known.

"Everything tends to make one think there is little relation between an object and that which represents it."
~ René  Magritte

Clairvoyance, René Magritte, 1928
Property of Mr. & Mrs. Wilbur Ross
Magritte spoke of painting as "a tool for thinking" and said he wanted to make "everyday objects shriek out loud". He accomplished this by forcing the viewer to see ordinary objects in surprising new ways.

Magritte was fascinated with the difference between a word and what it represents, and a painting and what it represents. He said, "An object is not so possessed of its name that one cannot find for it another which suits it better."

One of the explanatory placards at the museum quotes his 1938 lecture "La Ligne de vie" ("Lifeline"): "The titles of paintings were chosen in such a way as to inspire in the spectator an appropriate mistrust of any mediocre tendency to facile self-assurance."

The two paintings below make his point insistently. In the painting at left, "The Key to Dreams" (1930), each object is given the name of something else. An egg is an acacia, a shoe is the moon, a bowler hat is snow, a candle is a ceiling, a drinking glass is a storm and a hammer is a desert. In the painting at right, "The Key to Dreams" (1935), which was created in preparation for his first gallery show in the U.S., he used English labels for the same, intentionally disorienting effect.

Key to Dreams, René Magritte, 1930
Private Collection
Key to Dreams, René Magritte, 1935

The Human Condition, René Magritte, 1933
Property of National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC
This painting above, The Human Condition, is one of a handful that were included in both the 1965 and 2013 Magritte exhibitions at MoMA. To me, it is a nearly literal depiction of Magritte's statement that "Everything we see hides another thing; we always want to see what is hidden by what we see."

One final painting from MoMA delivers the meaning of this quote to me: "The Surreal is but reality that has not been disconnected from its mystery."

(Not to be reproduced), René Magritte, 1937
Property of Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam

His pipe and passport

To learn more about the MoMA exhibition "The Mystery of the Ordinary, 1926-38", visit MoMA.org

To learn more about René Magritte, see:

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Hey Mr. Bassman

"When I'm on stage, I'm trying to do one thing: bring people joy."
~ James Brown

Haven't posted in a while. I'm doing so today because everybody needs to see this short video from the Prelinger Archive. It's an almost all-girl xylophone band. The exception is a male bass player. To call him enthusiastic is to understate the case considerably. It's a joy to watch his wild little self. Many thanks to Peter Stampfel for sharing this on Facebook. As he said, "Man, that's jolly!"

And sorry the video bleeds over the edges — it was one-size-fits-all and I'm not good with changing aspect ratios!

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Plan B

"Life is what happens to you when you're busy making other plans."
~ Allen Saunders

Saturday, August 17th was the final day of this year's Summer Streets, a program the New York City Department of Transportation (DOT) has run for the past few years. Over three weekends each August, the DOT closes certain streets to cars and lets pedestrians and bike riders roam free.

For one of the early Summer Streets, the DOT set up giant dumpsters filled with water in a few places, allowing people to put a literal spin on dumpster-diving. This year the program extended from the foot of the Brooklyn Bridge at Foley Square and up Lafayette Street and Park Avenue to 72nd street and included everything from art to a zip line and a rock climbing wall.

One of the top attractions of 2013 was the Voice Tunnel, an installation by Mexican-Canadian artist Rafael Lozano-Hemmer. The Voice Tunnel was installed in the underground roadway that allows cars to travel beneath Park Avenue between 32nd and 41st Streets. I'd been meaning to see it, and today was the last chance.

I made my way down to the entrance 32nd Street. At first I tried walking in the street, but found dodging the teeming masses of bike riders too aggravating and ended up on the sidewalk. More and more people are taking to bikes in this city. In theory, it's great; in practice, mobs of rude boneheads on bikes are making walking less and less fun.

When I got to the tunnel entrance I discovered that everybody else in the city was already there. The line was so long that they closed the entrance more than two hours early to allow the already assembled crowd to pass through by 1:00 p.m., when the street would reopen to cars. Here is a short video of what I did not get to see in the Voice Tunnel.

On to plan B, devised when I walked out onto the street and realized the elevated roadway that runs around Grand Central Terminal was also closed to cars. Until today, I'd only ever been through there in a cab. Now I had the chance to find out how things look from the pedestrian vantage point.

Cornelius Vanderbilt
The first sight to see was Cornelius Vanderbilt, forever memorialized in his extravagant overcoat. Vanderbilt founded the New York Central Railroad; built Grand Central Depot, the predecessor to Grand Central Terminal; and was the patriarch of the family that owned the property Grand Central stands on.

I also had a closer-than-normal view of the sculpture titled "The Glory of Commerce" by French sculptor Jules-Felix Coutan. That's Hercules on the left, Minerva on the right and Mercury in the middle. Learn more about it in this post on the Untapped Cities website.


This is one of four employee entrances that stand, two per side, on the elevated roadway.  A little note is posted on all four doors saying employee I.D. is required.

This is another employee door – better lit and possibly cleaned up a bit, but with the same note.

Old, ornate lanterns line the part of the roadway that runs under the Helmsley building.

This is the Yale Club - not my photo, one I found on Wikimedia Commons. The club is across Vanderbilt Avenue from Grand Central, and as I looked at it I thought about Revolutionary War hero Nathan Hale. There's a plaque on the corner of the club saying Nathan Hale was hung here. But that's arguable — read this post in Ephemeral New York for an alternative claim.

It was a beautiful day, as this view looking West on 42nd Street makes clear.

The "Vanderbilt eagle" is a familiar site to anyone who walks along East 42nd Street. (This is another Wikimedia Commons photo, by the way.) What I discovered today is, the eagle's wings are supported by a beam and bolts.

And that is how I spent my Saturday morning. What did you do?

"The life of every man is a diary in which he means to write one story, and writes another..."
J. M. Barrie

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Migraine and the Last of Migraine

"Sometimes your pet picks you."
~ Julie Wenzel

Migraine, when we first met
It was a bright, brisk day in the autumn of 2006. My husband, Robert, was outside fiddling with our car. Because this is New York City, our car was parked at the curb across from our apartment building and he was alternating between the sidewalk and the street.

At some point he realized that a cat, a blond tabby with big green eyes, was sitting on the sidewalk watching him. After a while he locked up the car and started across the street to our building. The cat followed along. Robert opened the door, looked at the cat and said "Are you coming?" and the cat trotted in. He then followed Robert up three flights of stairs to our door. And came in.

This was our introduction to the cat we came to call Migraine*.

Migraine doing his "noble feline" impression
It was clear that Migraine loved people, but it turned out he didn't like cats. This was unfortunate since we already had two cats – best friends Bogie, a big goofy Tuxedo, and Little Harry, a sweet and beautiful Chartreux. We decided we'd try to find blondie's owner and, if we couldn't, we'd find him a good home. We asked all over the neighborhood, checked with all the veterinarians and shelters, looked for signs about a missing cat. Nothing. But we didn't worry. After all, who wouldn't want this loving and handsome young lad? But first – to our veterinarian, Dr. F.

That's when things got complicated. Migraine was not a young cat after all. Dr. F. was sure he was at least 11 or 12. He also had a "galloping" heartbeat, which Dr. F. correctly guessed (and confirmed via blood work) was related to an overactive thyroid. We tried out medications and eventually found a dosage that slowed his heartbeat without making him logy.

A handsome, friendly young cat is one thing. A handsome, friendly middle-aged cat with a bad heart and a thyroid condition was another. It looked like Migraine was staying with us. We had a talk with our three felines and told them they'd just all have to learn to get along.

Migraine with his favorite newspaper
Gradually, over the next several years they did at least learn to tolerate one another. While they never became great friends, Migraine stopped hissing at Bo and Harry and they stopped running out of the room when he came in. Mostly, Migraine liked to sit beside me on the sofa. He especially loved it when Robert would talk to him and scratch him behind the ears.

Over the years his health declined. By 2012 his thyroid meds were no longer controlling his galloping heartbeat and his kidneys were starting to go. His eyesight was so poor that I had to remove the top from the litter box so he could find the way in.

2013 was an especially bad year for Migraine. He periodically stopped eating. Each time it happened, I'd find some new, more interesting food for him to try. For the past six weeks or so, I gave him pieces of chopped up broiled chicken in every meal. That worked pretty well for a while. But this week nothing worked. He simply stopped eating. After a day he wobbled around or lay on the floor panting. He spent Thursday panting and staring at the side of the refrigerator, or the radiator, or a blank wall. He was getting emaciated. He was confused. He would drink water and pee while he stood there, seemingly unaware.

I thought – hoped – he would die gently in his sleep. But he didn't, so we knew it was time to intervene. We carried him to the veterinarian's office down the block. We took this final picture of our poor sad boy.

It was quick and merciful. We stayed in the room talking to him and petting him and crying throughout it all. No regrets, just tears.

"Our perfect companions never have fewer than four feet."
~ Colette

*About the name: We tried out several names for Migraine. This one stuck because he often walked around squinting the way I do when I have a migraine, and because his aggression toward the other cats was enough to give anyone a headache.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

April 18 is Poem in Your Pocket Day

April is National Poetry Month and one of the prizes it holds is Poem in Your Pocket Day on April 18.

Since 2003 New York City has celebrated the day every year with activities in schools and cultural organizations. In 2008 the Academy of American Poets extended the program nationally, and since then many other cities have instituted their own annual celebrations.

Poetry. As we say in New York City, what's not to like?

I'll be carrying two poems in my pocket: "The Second Coming" by William Butler Yeats, which seems almost too appropriate this year, and a wonderful Wendell Berry poem, "The Real Work". 

The Second Coming
By William Butler Yeats

Turning and turning in the widening gyre

The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere  
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst  
Are full of passionate intensity.

Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.  
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out  
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert  
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,  
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,  
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it  
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.  
The darkness drops again; but now I know  
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,  
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,  
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

The Real Work
By Wendell Berry

It may be that when we no longer know what to do
we have come to our real work,

and that when we no longer know which way to go
we have come to our real journey.

The mind that is not baffled is not employed.

The impeded stream is the one that sings.

What poem will you carry?

My niece Heather has chosen her pocket-sized poem: "Still Here" by Langston Hughes. Another friend, Win, has chosen William Cullen Bryant's "Thanatopsis" – which could require a deep pocket.

If you need ideas, visit the Academy of American Poets' Poem in Your Pocket Day site.

Also, do yourself a favor and download the Poetry Foundation's fabulous poetry app – you'll be able to carry hundreds of poems in your pocket every day.

Saturday, April 13, 2013

Celebrating 100 Years of Grand Central with Poetry and Music

On April 10 in Grand Central Terminal's beautiful Vanderbilt Hall, where the acoustics are so good that every musician should have a chance to play there, the Poetry Society of America and the NYC MTA's Arts for Transit program put on an absolutely terrific show – for free – to celebrate 100 years of Grand Central.

The event drew a good-sized crowd for a weekday evening, but since most people missed it, I'm going to recreate some of it for you. First a friendly warning: If you're in a hurry, you won't have time to read this.

The Yaz Band opened the evening. I missed their performance, but they're familiar from the MTA's Music Under New York program. Here they are playing in Penn Station.

The evening's first poet was Jeffrey Yang. He did not read this poem, but he might have – it's one he did for the city's recently revived Poetry in Motion program of poetry on mass transit.

Aracelis Girmay was the next poet to read. This is not one of the poems she chose – I couldn't find those – but here is her poem for Poetry in Motion, "Noche de Lluvia, San Salvador".

The miraculous all-female Mariachi Flor de Toloache stepped on the stage like a convocation of horn-tooting, fiddle-playing, guitar-strumming, vocalizing queens. I love mariachi music anywhere, anytime, but these women were outstanding. But why tell you about them when you can watch the performance I saw right here?

Poet Eduardo C. Corral spoke about his father, a hard-working immigrant sans visa, before reading this poem.

In Colorado My Father Scoured and Stacked Dishes
By Eduardo C. Corral

in a Tex-Mex restaurant. His co-workers,
unable to utter his name, renamed him Jalapeño.

If I ask for a goldfish, he spits a glob of phlegm
into a jar of water. The silver letters

on his black belt spell Sangrón. Once, borracho,
at dinner, he said: Jesus wasn’t a snowman.

Arriba Durango. Arriba Orizaba. Packed
into a car trunk, he was smuggled into the States.

Frijolero. Greaser. In Tucson he branded
cattle. He slept in a stable. The horse blankets

oddly fragrant: wood smoke, lilac. He’s an illegal.
I’m an Illegal-American. Once, in a grove

of saguaro, at dusk, I slept next to him. I woke
with his thumb in my mouth. ¿No qué no

tronabas, pistolita? He learned English
by listening to the radio. The first four words

he memorized: In God We Trust. The fifth:
Percolate. Again and again I borrow his clothes.

He calls me Scarecrow. In Oregon he picked apples.
Braeburn. Jonagold. Cameo. Nightly,

to entertain his cuates, around a campfire,
he strummed a guitarra, sang corridos. Arriba

Durango. Arriba Orizaba. Packed into
a car trunk, he was smuggled into the States.

Greaser. Beaner. Once, borracho, at breakfast,
he said: The heart can only be broken

once, like a window. ¡No mames! His favorite
belt buckle: an águila perched on a nopal.

If he laughs out loud, his hands tremble.
Bugs Bunny wants to deport him. César Chávez

wants to deport him. When I walk through
the desert, I wear his shirt. The gaze of the moon

stitches the buttons of his shirt to my skin.
The snake hisses. The snake is torn.

The next poet, Bob Holman, is a champion of poetry spoken and performed. Here he is at Fordham University.

Salieu Suso is a kora player from The Gambia. I see him often on my way to work in the morning and always stop to listen to his beautiful, haunting music. In fact, I saw him playing in the Times Square station the morning after he played at Grand Central and told him so; he seemed pleased. Watch him sing and play here.

Marie Howe read next. When she introduced this poem, she said she had written it about her daughter, now 12, when she was four. She realized she was always telling her little one to hurry and began to question it.

By Marie Howe

We stop at the dry cleaners and the grocery store
and the gas station and the green market and
Hurry up honey, I say, hurry,
as she runs along two or three steps behind me
her blue jacket unzipped and her socks rolled down.

Where do I want her to hurry to? To her grave?
To mine? Where one day she might stand all grown?
Today, when all the errands are finally done, I say to her,
Honey I'm sorry I keep saying Hurry—
you walk ahead of me. You be the mother.

And, Hurry up, she says, over her shoulder, looking
back at me, laughing. Hurry up now darling, she says,
hurry, hurry, taking the house keys from my hands.

Poem copyright ©2008 by Marie Howe, and reprinted from "When She Named Fire," ed., Andrea Hollander Budy, Autumn House Press, 2009.

Billy Collins topped the poetry bill. That's his new poem for Poetry in Motion above. He spoke about his lifelong relationship with Grand Central – his father commuted via the terminal daily and the family passed through on visits. And then he read this wonderful poem, "The Death of The Hat".

The Death of the Hat
By Billy Collins

Once every man wore a hat.

In the ashen newsreels,
the avenues of cities
are broad rivers flowing with hats.

The ballparks swelled
with thousands of strawhats,
brims and bands,
rows of men smoking
and cheering in shirtsleeves.

Hats were the law.
They went without saying.
You noticed a man without a hat in a crowd.

You bought them from Adams or Dobbs
who branded your initials in gold
on the inside band.

Trolleys crisscrossed the city.
Steamships sailed in and out of the harbor.
Men with hats gathered on the docks.

There was a person to block your hat
and a hatcheck girl to mind it
while you had a drink
or ate a steak with peas and a baked potato.
In your office stood a hat rack.

The day war was declared
everyone in the street was wearing a hat.
And they were wearing hats
when a ship loaded with men sank in the icy sea.

My father wore one to work every day
and returned home
carrying the evening paper,
the winter chill radiating from his overcoat.

But today we go bareheaded
into the winter streets,
stand hatless on frozen platforms.

Today the mailboxes on the roadside
and the spruce trees behind the house
wear cold white hats of snow.

Mice scurry from the stone walls at night
in their thin fur hats
to eat the birdseed that has spilled.

And now my father, after a life of work,
wears a hat of earth,
and on top of that,
a lighter one of cloud and sky--a hat of wind.

The evening ended with a performance by Hot Sardines, and they were hot indeed. This video will give you a sense of what they're like, but for the Grand Central performance they added a tap dancer – très chaud!