Tuesday, June 22, 2010

The High Line and Hudson River Park

This past weekend, I had a chance to visit two beautiful public spaces in Manhattan—the High Line and Hudson River Park. I saw the city through another lens, transformed by environments that combine nature with thoughtful design to create havens for city dwellers.

On the High Line, one sees the city from a new perspective. Built on former elevated railroad tracks on the lower West Side, the High Line meanders several stories above ground. Elegant plantings provide a charming immediate environment, while views of the Hudson and the surrounding cityscape yield surprising and lovely longer-range sights.

One can see the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island shimmering through a window of buildings and a pedestrian bridge.

New and old construction along the High Line adds interest. It's uplifting to see the Meatpacking District and Chelsea in a new light.

Hudson River Park is a great place to walk or bike on a warm summer day in Manhattan. A cool breeze comes off the water and the old piers have been re-invented as parks and playgrounds.

Ancient pilings have been left in place, forming sanctuaries for fish and wildlife.

Across the river, the skyline of Jersey City looms impressively.

And a look back at Manhattan yields a striking view of the Empire State Building. 

I love the energy of Manhattan. When I walk among the city's skyscrapers, I'm amazed at what human beings have accomplished. But when I visit the city, I also long for space, sky, and greenery. The High Line and Hudson River Park offer a unique combination of the man-made and the natural.

Click on the photos to enlarge them.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Life Goes On

I used to think that when something bad happened, writing would serve as a solace and support. But I've found that in times of crisis and loss, my writing muse mostly deserts me. The death of a much-loved cousin has recently caused me to pause. While I haven't entirely stopped writing, my blog posts have been less frequent.

In the past, when experiencing the shock of grief, I've felt surprised at the way life around me goes on. This time is no different. I think about cousin Art while the birds twitter, the flowers bloom, and my neighbor stops to say hello. I go to the market, prepare meals, brush my teeth. Sadness gives the mundane a heightened beauty.

Rather than write more, I'd like to offer some photos I took the other day with my iPhone, when the flowers and greenery in my yard seemed particularly lovely. Adios, Arturo.
Click on the photos to enlarge them.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Happy 13th Birthday, Cosmo!

In a seeming miracle, Cosmo the wonder poodle has reached the ripe old age of 13. In my unbiased opinion, he's the most adorable dog in the world. He still retains his puppy playfulness despite his geriatric status. He may be caught napping on occasion, but he can always be aroused by the words "treat" or "walk."

An adventurous eater, Cosmo will try anything. His tastes range from strained chicken to watermelon, honeydew, apples, peas, carrots, and green beans. He's never been known to turn down a slice of smoked turkey or a few flakes of tuna, either. But he can get down and dirty with the best of them when it comes to dog food. He's pretty much tried them all. His current favorite is Royal Canin, an apt choice for such a princely animal.

Though small in stature, Cosmo thinks big. He's never shied away from a confrontation and has been known to challenge Dobermans, German Shepherds, and even Great Danes. But once he's stopped barking, he couldn't be friendlier.

Cosmo has been my loyal companion for 13 years. When he was a puppy, he helped me bond with my teenage sons. When I was sick, he comforted me. And when we moved, he made our new place feel like home. But perhaps his greatest gift to me has been a deep feeling of connection to all non-human creatures. Living with Cosmo has made me more sensitive to animals in the wild and has enriched me in ways no words can describe. Happy Birthday, Cos!

Friday, June 11, 2010

The Robins Rebuild

A couple of weeks ago, after the baby robins left their nest under our deck, E. removed the nest. Robins can breed two or three times in a season and we hoped that by removing the nest we would discourage the parents from building in the same place next time. A futile hope, as it turned out.

Robins have an uncanny homing instinct and will build over and over again in the same location if possible. Our robins had constructed their nest in the exact same spot last spring. Since E. removed this spring's nest, we've been checking daily for signs of new activity. This morning, I saw a robin with dried grass hanging from its beak and, sure enough, when I looked under the deck I could see that building had begun.

We decided to remove the nest materials immediately and to put something in the area to prevent further building there. Not that the nest itself bothered us. To the contrary, we found it fascinating to watch the eggs hatch and the chicks grow big (see my earlier post, Drama Under the Deck). But the door bashing really got to be too much. The birds were smashing into glass doors both above and below the deck, risking their own well-being and leaving a mess of bird droppings behind (see More on Robins—The Messy Side). They truly would be better off with a nest in a nearby tree, where they wouldn't fall prey to their own reflection in a pane of glass.

After clearing out the beginnings of the new nest, we found some old packing material, which we crammed into the space to make it impossible for the birds to build there again. Robins are nothing if not resourceful, though. I won't be shocked if they find some way to incorporate the foreign matter into a new nest. Or maybe they'll decide to build on an adjacent rafter. Time will tell. While I feel sad about depriving the industrious robins of their chosen nesting site, I hope they'll find an even better spot where their babies can hatch and mature in peace.

Thursday, June 10, 2010


I just watched the first episode of Treme, an HBO series set in the Tremé neighborhood of New Orleans after Katrina. Thanks to On Demand, I had access to the first 79-minute installment. I hesitated to tune in to the series when it first aired in early April because I was sure it would depress me. But the show, produced by the same team that created The Wire, manages to find warmth, humor, and resilience among the city's inhabitants while capturing the devastation of the flooding. Music plays a central role and the series features many local musicians.

The creators of Treme couldn't have dreamed that their program would air just as Louisiana became engulfed in a new catastrophe, but the juxtaposition of the earlier and current events certainly added poignancy to my viewing experience. When John Goodman's character, a local college professor, angrily tells a journalist, "We're dying down here" while the government dithers around, I immediately thought of James Carville, who recently said said those same words as he furiously protested the Federal government's slow response to the oil spill. When things get really bad, as they did after Katrina, they can apparently get even worse, as we're learning during the present crisis.

Judging from the first episode of Treme, though, there's room for optimism. Even in the worst of circumstances, people find reasons to laugh. I plan to keep watching the series and hope that joy leavens the sadness on television and in real life.

Here's a link to a trailer for Treme on YouTube: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RPVMxuoarbg.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Things Are, Then They Aren't

Earlier today, I met a friend at the Deluxe Town Diner, where we spent a delightful couple of hours having lunch and catching up. When I entered the restaurant, white clouds scudded across a blue sky. By the time I emerged, the sky had turned gray and threatening. It was a beautiful day, then it wasn't.

Last Friday, I was about to cook dinner and enjoy a leisurely start to my weekend. The only thing on my mind was what DVD I felt like watching that evening. Then E. discovered that the hot water heater was leaking and the basement was rapidly flooding. We spent the next several hours attempting to mitigate the damage. It was an uneventful evening, then it wasn't.

I've been patiently switching Cosmo from one anti-seizure medication to another. The first medicine couldn't be stopped cold turkey, so I added the second medicine for several weeks, then gradually began weaning him off the first. After the initial dose reduction, all went well. Cosmo acted like a healthy dog, with plenty of pep and enthusiasm. I felt optimistic about the prospects for continuing the weaning process. After two weeks, following the vet's instructions, I lowered the dose again. Two days later, Cosmo had a seizure. Then another. And another. Cosmo was seizure-free, then he wasn't.

The east coast of South Florida boasts beaches with soft white sand and bright blue water of striking clarity. During walks along Biscayne Bay, I've seen manatees, dolphins, sting rays, barracuda, brown pelicans, egrets, herons, gulls, and other magnificent wild creatures. The South Florida coastal waters still provide a healthy habitat for sea creatures and birds. But, if the oil that's currently suffocating the Gulf of Mexico gets picked up by the loop current, predictions are that it will be carried around the southern tip of Florida and along the east coast. For now, that coast is pristine . . .

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Young Love

While on a meandering walk with Cosmo the other day, I found myself in front of a neighbor's house. The family had moved in a few years ago—a husband and wife and one daughter, now a tall, pretty teenager. Cosmo paused to do some sniffing in front of their house. It was a beautiful early-June afternoon. The air smelled of flowers and the wind whispered gently in the trees.

I heard the murmur of voices but at first couldn't tell where they came from. Then I noticed the daughter, lying on the side lawn with a dark-haired boy by her side. They were talking and laughing and the girl had a blade of grass between her teeth.

The scene instantly took me back to my own teenage years, when I wanted nothing more than to daydream the afternoons away under the spell of a clear blue sky. It made me nostalgic for the heady sensation of having my whole life before me and all the time in the world. And most especially, it brought back the glorious feeling of young love.

I know I'm leaving some things out—the insecurity, the adolescent angst. But still, not much can compare to the teenage intoxication of a warm day, a cute guy, and no parents in sight.

Monday, June 7, 2010

Bananas are Cool

I love bananas. I like to eat them with my breakfast granola. I enjoy them as a late afternoon snack, which will stave off hunger pangs until dinner. I love banana bread, banana cream pie, banana splits. Mashed bananas were among the earliest food I fed my kids. But I've always had a problem with bananas — when stored at room temperature, they quickly become overripe.

I tend to like my bananas firm, when the skin has turned yellow but there's still a hint of green at the stem. I don't like them at the supposedly ideal stage (except if I'm baking banana bread), when they're yellow with a few flecks of brown. Until recently, I always hesitated to buy my bananas in large bunches, lest they rot before I had a chance to eat them, so I would buy one or, at most, two bananas at a time.

Then I heard an interview with Dan Koeppel about his book, Banana: The Fate of the Fruit That Changed the World. Toward the end of the interview, Koeppel sang the the Chiquita Banana song, one of the more successful advertising jingles in history. Among the original lyrics are the following assertions — "Bananas have to ripen in a certain way" and "You should never put bananas in the refrigerator." 

According to Koeppel, both those assertions are false. In fact, bananas are shipped refrigerated, which keeps them from ripening too soon. Refrigerating them once you've purchased them will slow down further ripening. While the skin may turn brown in the refrigerator, this does not mean the bananas have gone bad. In fact, they will remain at pre-refrigeration ripeness for a much longer period than if left at room temperature.

This was all news to me. On rare occasions, I had previously put bananas in the refrigerator in the hope of preserving them. But the skins quickly turned an unappealing shade of brown and I just assumed the fruit had gone bad. My mistake. Since hearing the interview with Koeppel, I've been buying bananas by the bunch and refrigerating them once they reach exactly the stage of ripeness I prefer. In the refrigerator, they remain firm and delicious for a number of days. And they don't always turn brown (see the photo below, of a banana that's been refrigerated for several days and is still looking good). Plus, I've discovered I like the refreshing taste of a cold banana.

These days, my bananas are cool, both literally and figuratively.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Minor Domestic Disturbance

Last night around 6 p.m., E. and I realized we had no hot water. A trip down to the basement confirmed our worst fears — our ten-year-old gas hot water heater had leaked several inches of water into the surrounding area, including inside a closet where we'd stored boxes on the floor. Trying to look on the bright side, we reminded ourselves that water is much easier to clean up than oil. Then we set to work. Or, I should say, E. set to work.

This minor crisis served to remind me of my physical shortcomings as well as my deficiencies regarding anything mechanical. The water heater shutoff valve was stuck, so E. temporarily turned off the water to the entire house. I'd forgotten where the main water shutoff is located. Then E. used a mallet to loosen the water heater shutoff valve, so he was able to close it and then restore (cold) water to the rest of the house. I wouldn't have had the common sense and possibly not the strength to get the shutoff valve to close. Next, E. had the presence of mind to look for the gas shutoff. He quickly located it and shut that off, too. Such a move wouldn't have occurred to me. 

I did have a role, however. My job was to find a plumber who could replace the water heater. Good luck at 6 p.m. on a Friday night. In fact, the receptionist for my regular plumber did call me right back, but then she informed me that no one would be available until Monday morning. Meantime, she offered moral support and some practical advice — turn off the shutoff valve, don't use the hot water faucets, write down the model and serial numbers so you'll have them handy when the plumber finally calls.

My next move was to contact our heating/air conditioning company to see if they could help. The service guy on call told me he didn't service water heaters but would ask his manager if he had a suggestion. Within half an hour, the manager put me in touch with a different plumber, who does work on weekends. The plumber was pleasant and helpful. He promised to try to locate a new water heater for us in the morning. If he found one, he would install it that afternoon. Just knowing someone was on the case made me feel better.

Meanwhile, E. was engaged in more tasks that were beyond my physical ability — moving wet boxes onto dry ground and attempting to drain out the rest of the enormous (75 gallon) water tank. Unfortunately, the hose he hooked up didn't drain the water effectively, so that meant releasing water from the tank into a big bucket and carrying the bucket to a sink on the other side of the basement. I soon lost count of how many trips it took, but my arms are too weak to have hoisted one of the bucketfuls he carried. I seriously need to start weight training.

This morning, the concrete floor is mostly dry and we've cleared some beach chairs and other stuff out of the area near the water heater to make room for the plumber when he arrives. Chances are he won't find the right water heater today, so we'll be washing with cold water for a while. But I wasn't too happy with my prior plumber anyway — although I've lost a water heater, I'm hoping I've gained a good plumber.

Fortunately, although the bottoms of some boxes were wet, nothing inside was damaged. And, thinking positively, the forced relocation of lots of stuff has created an opportunity for a long overdue cleanup and reorganization. Not exactly how I planned to spend my weekend, but I'm mindful that things could have been a lot worse. If we'd been away when the heater began to leak, we could have returned home to a major flood.

The plumber told me that ten years is about as much as one can expect from a water heater. He said they're only built to last about that long. Talk about planned obsolescence. I'm sure I could write an entire blog post about that, if not a book.

Friday, June 4, 2010

Where's the Zeitgeist?

Yesterday, I came across an article in the New York Times about James Taylor and Carol King, who are currently traveling the world with their "Troubadour Reunion" tour. The songs written and sung by Taylor and King, who have been collaborating since the 1970s, were part of the musical backdrop of my youth. Like many of my peers, I owned all their early albums. I even saw James Taylor perform in concert at UMass Amherst in the spring of 1970. The music of Taylor and King, and the fact that so many of my fellow baby boomers listened to it, helped define the spirit of the times, the zeitgeist.

Motown, soul music, heavy metal, folk rock, psychedelic rock — the music of the sixties and seventies both created and epitomized the cultural climate. Sure, some of us liked Elton John while others grooved to Jimi Hendrix, but most of us listened to all of it. We listened to it on drugs, we listened to it while protesting the Vietnam War, we listened to it to figure out who we were and where we were going. This vast common absorption in the music of a relatively small group of performers made an event like Woodstock possible. The free love fest reflected the music and the music reflected the values of its listeners.

Since that time, there's been an amazing proliferation of musical style and content. Technological developments have enabled musicians to record on a shoestring. Garage bands can disseminate their music to niche audiences, enabling a huge number of groups to gain a following. In most respects, this is a good thing, a wonderful thing. But it's also overwhelming and has led to tremendous fragmentation in the music world. Totally different audiences listen to rap, hip-hop, country, alternative rock, pop, and techno, to name just a few of the many genres competing today. I can't name them all because I probably haven't even heard of them.

A lot of contemporary music is brilliant — great musicianship, beautiful melodies, complex musical themes. By comparison, the music of my youth sometimes sounds simple and repetitive. It's not the quality of today's music that has muted its ability to transform the culture, it's the sheer number and variety of musical styles and performers. One could argue that the very diversity of contemporary music in fact embodies the spirit of the current times, with its emphasis on celebrating our differences. But I don't believe that argument holds up — at the current historical moment, music is a powerful means of self-expression but it's not at the center of our cultural identity.

I'd love to hear your take on this. If you agree with me that music doesn't occupy the same central role in our culture that it did forty years ago, what, if anything, has taken it's place? Reality TV? Facebook? Video games? The Internet itself?

Click on the link below to listen to one of my favorite songs by The Band while contemplating your response.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

The Healing Power of Sports

I didn't think anything could pull me out of my despondent mood yesterday, but I inadvertently re-discovered a powerful antidote for despair — the shared euphoria that sometimes occurs during a sporting event.

A friend had given E. and me tickets to last night's Red Sox game. While a long-time fan, I haven't been following the Sox closely this season and felt ambivalent about going, especially in light of my malaise over the drastic situations in the Gulf and in the Middle East. Still, it was a beautiful evening and we had the tickets. There was no good reason not to go. So, I put on my Red Sox glitter shirt and we headed over to Fenway.

As soon as we walked onto Yawkey Way, I felt better. The smell of Fenway Franks in the cool night air evoked memories of earlier happy visits to the ballpark and the sound of Boston accents gave me a comforting sense of place. Inside, we found our seats on the first base line and settled down to watch the pre-game festivities. The green grass glimmered, the white home uniforms shone, and the "Star Spangled Banner" rang out loud and clear.

The game got off to a fast start. Daisuke Matsuzaka allowed three Oakland runs in the top of the first inning. Then, in the bottom of the first, Oakland Pitcher Ben Sheets let Boston get two of them back. The score remained 3-2 until the bottom of the fifth. Darnell McDonald doubled to the gap in left. David Ortiz stepped up to the plate. Patiently, Big Papi worked the count to 3 balls, 2 strikes. He fouled off a fastball. The crowd was into it, cheering as Sheets threw his next pitch, an inside fastball, which Ortiz sent sailing gracefully into the seats in right field.

It was a moment of pure joy. Worldly concerns fell away as the fans roared their approval. It seemed to me that the crowd's anticipatory cheers had provided just the right impetus for Big Papi's bat. I exulted along with the rest of the fans, remembering why I love baseball so much. Later, during the seventh inning stretch, everyone joined in a rousing rendition of "Take Me Out to the Ballgame." The old-fashioned song, sung in the historic park, gave a further lift to my spirits, as did the fact that the Sox went on to win the game.

I later learned that while I was watching the Red Sox, Armando Galarraga was pitching a perfect game for the Detroit Tigers, marred only by a faulty call on a play that should have resulted in the final out. Frustrating as it was for Galarraga to be denied his perfect game, the umpire (once he saw the replay) couldn't have been more regretful and the pitcher couldn't have been more magnanimous — another example of the way sports can elevate us.

After 9/11, the power of sports to unite people and hearten them was demonstrated most dramatically when the Yankees played their first home game after the attacks, on September 25, 2001. Yankee Stadium became the setting where Americans could express their grief, their patriotism, and their solidarity. Last night, I was reminded of that remarkable ability of sports to bring people together.

Today, it's back to the real world, but with a little more optimism than yesterday.

Click on the photos to enlarge them.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Worry Is an Understatement

There's so much going wrong in so much of the world so much of the time that I usually find it too overwhelming to dwell on global events. Instead, I focus on my own much narrower universe and direct my caring and concern toward my family, friends, and local community.

Today, though, it feels like my community is the world. The oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico threatens to become America's Chernobyl. Whole ecosystems and geographic areas may be ruined for decades or more. The oil that's spewing from the undersea well in the Gulf knows no national boundaries. The U.S., Cuba, Canada, and the entire globe will be affected by what happens there.

While the Gulf disaster represents apparent corporate and perhaps governmental negligence, greed, and technological over-reaching, the latest escalation of the Arab-Israeli conflict seems emblematic of the ethnic and racial hatreds that permeate our human family. In a world where so many good people try to live decent lives, why do others seem to thrive on conflict and destruction?

I haven't got a clue about how to make things better, but it's hard to write a cheery blog about my latest domestic absurdity in the face of millions of barrels of spilled oil and escalating tensions in the Middle East.

Hopefully, things will be better tomorrow.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Climate Cooling

While Al Gore has been traveling around the world warning that the earth's climate is warming, there has apparently been a distinct cooling in the climate between him and his wife, Tipper — the couple revealed today that they are separating. The news came via an email sent this morning to friends and first reported by Politico.

"This is very much a mutual and mutually supportive decision that we have made together following a process of long and careful consideration," the former vice president and his wife said in their email. "We ask for respect for our privacy and that of our family, and we do not intend to comment further."

The news comes as a surprise to me, given that the couple has been known for their close and openly affectionate relationship. According to the L.A. Times, they recently spent $8.8 million dollars on a mansion in Montecito, California, not something I'd expect them to do if they were about to separate, unless the fancy new home with nine bathrooms represented a last-ditch attempt to save the marriage. While I was busy wondering how an environmentalist like Al Gore could purchase a property with such an enormous carbon footprint, I guess I should have been speculating about whether the Gore marital climate had gone glacial.

For their sakes, I hope the Gores adhere to their stated intention not comment further. It's really nobody's business why their marriage failed after forty years and four children. Still, it's amusing to speculate. Perhaps Al's expanding girth has been a source of tension. Or his constant travel as an environmental advocate. Or maybe Tipper craved the life of First Lady and never recovered from her husband's difficult defeat in the 2000 election. Or perhaps Al told Tipper that he's starting to doubt the global warming theory that he did so much to promote. Now, that could have provoked some pretty heated arguments!