Thursday, February 28, 2008

Moving Day

There are few tasks as abysmally tiresome and stress-inducing as moving. Indeed, I rank "moving" near the bottom of the "Least Fun Things to Do" list, in close proximity to funerals, dentist visits, waiting at the DMV, and sitting through "Sesame Street Live" at Madison Square Garden. (Actually, funerals are probably higher on the list because they're usually over in an hour and don't involve heavy lifting - unless you're one of the pallbearers.)

Like so many New Yorkers - including most of my friends - I've rented storage space since moving here. It's amazing how big the storage business is in this city. Storage companies advertise everywhere, from billboards to subway cars. Some promise a free first month, free car services to and from one's storage building, and elaborate climate control systems. Since most of us live in tiny apartments with only two or three closets, one either lives with a clutter of boxes or rents storage. So like everyone else I had much of my previous life locked away in a Chelsea warehouse: books and more books, lots of heavy furniture, antique glassware and art pottery, an artificial Christmas tree and ornaments, part of my wife's huge yarn stash, and boxes of miscellaneous pots, pans, and household items.

If you live in New York you're familiar with the transformation of the Chelsea neighborhood over the last few years. The area has become famous for its art galleries and trendy restaurants. The warehouse in which my stuff was stored has gradually been converting floors to galleries. At the beginning of February we learned that the remainder of the building was being converted and all storage spaces had to be vacated by the 29th. Although we had talked about doing something with storage for eons, inertia allowed us to continue talking - without actually doing anything - until now.

Yesterday we rented a 16 ft. truck from Penske (with a good reputation for having trucks that won't leave you on the side of the road like U-Haul or Ryder), emptied the two storage rooms and loaded everything onto the truck, drove to Danbury, CT, and unloaded everything into my late mother-in-law's house, then drove the truck back to Manhattan and finally turned it in. It took us 11 hours to accomplish the whole ordeal. But I can joyfully say that for such an onerous task, we completed it without any glitches - no breakdowns, traffic jams, or packing nightmares. Yes, it was dirty, back-breaking work, made more difficult by the snow on the ground in Connecticut. We also had to take a convoluted route out of the City because so many of the turnpikes and parkways are restricted to passenger cars only. The truck routes can be quite tricky and involve much more city driving.

Naturally there was the expected bickering and grumbling at the beginning of the day, but once we started working my wife and I rediscovered some of that sense of teamwork one hopes to muster under such difficult circumstances. When we finally settled into bed - after hot showers and several Advil - we were congratulating ourselves for the day's efforts. (I vowed, however, that the next time we move anything, we're paying someone else to do the lifting! I'm too old to tackle this again.)

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Random Shots

Here's a sample of photos from my walks of the last few days. The first two shots are of a great building on Houston St. just below Broadway. I love the late afternoon sun . . . and the geometry of the fire escape against the architectural ornamentation. I know I promised no more water tanks, but here's the shadow of a tank cast on an NYU housing tower on Houston St. The final image is of the "BVM" (what some of my Catholic friends call the "Blessed Virgin Mary") outside of St. Anthony of Padua Church on West Houston and Sullivan St.

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Friday, February 22, 2008

Let it snow, let it snow, let it snow . . .

We finally have some measurable snow in the City, with perhaps three to four inches having fallen by Noon. It's always interesting to watch how New Yorkers react to snowy days. Manhattan, of course, barely slows down unless the snowfall surpasses a foot in depth. Schools remain open. Everyone goes to work. Cabs, buses, and subways shuttle the herds about, and perhaps the only inconvenience are the slush-filled crosswalks that can reduce one's feet to wet, freezing lumps of flesh - even in boots. Central Park, my favorite destination in the snow, becomes a wonderland, with sledders and cross-country skiers needing only a couple of inches to hit the Park's trails and excellent hills. Indeed, with public schools on mid-Winter break this week, I'm sure Central Park is full at this very moment with snow-starved revelers.

Not everyone loves the snow, however. Walking around town one quickly spots those people for whom the snow is just a nuisance. They usually walk hunched over, almost tip-toeing through the white powder, scowls on their faces, all but shouting out their disdain for those of us who enjoy the white stuff. My boss and I, having grown up in the South and witnessed no more than a few inches of snow each year, delight in these moments. This morning we both heard that quiet voice of our childhood calling out to play in the snow. We obliged by going out and building a little snowman/angel on our front step. Some people may have thought we're crazy, but many passers-by stopped to chat and take pictures.

Finding plenty to be grumpy about, I think it's easier to accept the snow and its slippery reminder of winters long past. Rather than scowl at the weather and curse the slush, take a moment to make a snowball or stomp through the little drifts made by the snow blowers and shovelers clearing off the sidewalks. Put on your boots and march through Central Park. Enjoy the snow!

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Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Music Recommendation

For those of you who are addicted to your iPods and are constantly looking for new music, check out Gerald Finzi's "Romance For Strings," which is available on iTunes. Finzi (1901-1956) was a contemporary and confidant of Ralph Vaughan Williams, and like Vaughan Williams often employed traditional English folk melodies in his compositions. "Romance for Strings" was composed in 1928 but not performed for the first time until 1951.

(Photo taken last night from a restaurant on Bleecker St. at 6th Ave., looking uptown to the Empire State Bldg.)

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Weekend Shots: Jefferson Market Library

If you've followed this blog for a few months, you've seen this building before: the Jefferson Market Library, one of the most prominent structures in Greenwich Village. It was built in 1887 as a courthouse, with an adjoining women's prison. The prison is long since gone, the site now occupied by a beautiful community garden on Greenwich Ave. Of course, I've painted and photographed the library many times, and I was fortunate to see it over the weekend in that great late afternoon light, and then after dark. Without a tripod on hand, the night photo is sub-par. The watercolor sketch, done about two years ago, is on 3.5" x 9.5" Sennelier paper.

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End of an Era in Cuba

The announcement of Fidel Castro's retirement as Cuba's primary leader represents the end of an era - to a point. In fact, the installation of his brother promises little substantive change. Moreover, as long as Fidel remains alive and conscious, he will continue to exert influence over Cuba's course, even if that leadership is only symbolic. Reacting to the news, President Bush has again displayed his political naivete by declaring that Cuba should now welcome reform and the "blessings of democracy." (Rather than pontificate on Cuba's future, Mr. Bush should first contemplate bestowing the "blessings" of a democratic system on some of the forgotten parts of the U.S.)

At the height of the Cold War one could argue that Cuba represented a strategic hub and potential flash point. The Cuban Missile Crisis certainly illustrated its significance as a potential striking point from which the Soviet Union might attack the United States. Given the anti-Soviet "containment policy" which shaped American foreign policy for more than 40 years after World War II, one can easily understand the U.S. embargo against Cuba. But in the years since the Soviet Union's collapse, that embargo has made less and less sense. Certainly Cuba no longer enjoys the strategic significance it maintained in the 1960s and 70s. In economic terms it is a poor player in Caribbean and Latin American affairs. Yet Castro - and by association, Cuba and its people - have remained a symbolic "bogeyman" in our back yard, periodically rebuked by both Democratic and Republican administrations. Acknowledging the changing political landscape of the last 20 years, policies designed to punish Castro and Cuba seem ideologically untenable, borne of monolithic anti-Communism.

Of course, many liberal Americans have been calling for a revision of our Cuba policy for years. But conservatives, backed by the powerful Cuban lobby in south Florida, have continued to wave the red flag of anti-Communism, calling for "democratic" reforms in Cuba as a condition for friendlier relations and aid. What few of these hardliners like to talk about is the utter oppressiveness of the U.S.-backed Batista regime that was overthrown by Cuban revolutionaries in 1959. Moreover, they don't like to acknowledge the successes wrought by Castro and his government over the last 50 years. For example, although the country remains desperately poor, its people enjoy access to an educational system and medical care that are the envy of Latin America.

In the last year of his presidency Bush seems desperate to rescue the historical legacy of his administration with foreign policy initiatives. His domestic policies have failed miserably, unless one counts tax cuts for corporate interests and the wealthy as benchmarks of success. If Mr. Bush really wants to make a difference abroad, he should announce the end of the U.S. embargo against Cuba and offer an aid package to the Cuban people - with no strings attached. At this point, he has nothing to lose politically. And since he's so anxious to divert attention from the quagmires in Iraq and Afghanistan, a revised Cuba policy presents itself as a decidedly humanitarian option. Sure, aiding Cuba won't wash the wasted blood of thousands from his hands, but it certainly represents a start for an administration that has perhaps irreparably soiled this country's reputation.

Friday, February 15, 2008

Lent, Part I: Addition or Subtraction?

There's a Simpson's episode in which a bored Lisa and Bart look to Marge for help. Suggesting board games, she offers several choices: "Citizenship," "The Energy Shortage Game," "Hippo in the House," and "The Game of Lent," which clearly looks like a parody of the old "Game of Life" that so many of us played as kids. Remember the little cars with pink and blue pins to represent one's spouse and offspring? Although Bart and Lisa turn down the offer, one suspects that in the warped minds of Simpson's writers, "The Game of Lent" would have included spaces like, "Yield to Temptation: Move back three spaces and say the Lord's Prayer five times."

Growing up as a Southern Baptist I never heard of Lent - or Advent, Maundy Thursday, and Epiphany, for that matter. Those were days observed by Catholics, whom, I recall, were always regarded with implied suspicion, as if they performed macabre rituals involving the "body and blood of Christ" behind their closed doors. Who could have imagined the dark arts imputed to the "holy mysteries" of transubstantiation or the rosary?! So even after I became an Episcopalian in my thirties, the practice of Lent still seemed alien, even if the concept of penitential contemplation proved obvious. It's rather like Advent on "downers" - a time of "preparation," but without the carols, wreaths, candles and parties. Those sentiments are ostensibly eaten away in an orgy of pancake suppers and church social hall "Mardi Gras" dinners on Shrove Tuesday.

Around Shrove Tuesday and Ash Wednesday this year I tried to listen in on conversations that might reveal people's thoughts on the coming season. And from bus and subway to bodega and restaurant, it was interesting to hear how some will observe the Lenten season. For example, there were the traditional declarations of "I'm giving up x or y for Lent," with x and y most often being chocolate, alcohol, red meat, TV, and cigarettes. On Ash Wednesday I even overheard one restaurant patron declare while waiting in line: "I'm going to try and be nicer to people during Lent." (Thought: If you're using Lent to be a "nicer" person, you've got bigger issues than one can solve in a 40-day period. Moreover, one is compelled to wonder if this person is normally mean-spirited. Perhaps she's thinking, "Ok, as soon as that first Easter brunch bloody mary is drained, all bets are off; I'm going back to my bitchy self.")

A few years ago I heard a Lenten sermon by an Episcopal priest who addressed this practice of yearly denial. Commenting on the silliness of so many Lenten promises to abstain from, deny, or strip away these little physical elements of our daily lives, he noted that too many Christians over-ritualize and over-simplify the practice of Lenten disciplines, thus missing the point entirely. To me they seem akin to New Year's Resolution do-overs, made manageable by their finite scale. In the end, our Rector concluded his sermon by recommending the more active option of "taking on" something new that might prove enriching to ourselves and others. His examples included volunteering for community service organizations (like a soup kitchen, food pantry, or homeless shelter), committing oneself to new worship opportunities (for example, attending morning or evening prayer services, or engaging one's family in the nightly service of Compline, which is a lovely service in the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer). These represented only the most obvious possibilities. Of a decidedly academic bent, I decided to take the scholarly route and read on matters spiritual. He urged us to be creative. And although my theology has expanded beyond the narrow confines of Christian dogmatism, being inclusive of several lexicons of faith at present, I've continued this Lenten practice adopted when I lived in Tennessee. Right now, for example, I'm reading Kathleen Norris's Dakota: A Spiritual Geography. (Photo: RC Church of St. Vincent Ferrer, Lexington Ave.)

To be continued

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Virtual Refrigerator

Those of you with kids have no doubt used your refrigerators for posting recent artwork, report cards, and the ephemera of myriad milestones. Our fridge, however, is covered with sports photos - our boys in soccer and baseball uniforms stretching back to their first T-ball moments, some framed as faux "Sports Illustrated" covers and "Wheaties" boxes. Their art work - at least since nursery school - has been placed in acid-free archival boxes, waiting for that embarrasasing moment decades hence when we can pull them out and show prom dates, fiances, and college roommates the first artistic scribblings of Ben and Sam.

Ben likes art but his first love is sports. Sam (age 7), however, loves drawing and painting and has listed "book illustrator" as one of his future careers. Although I would never try to force one of my children into any profession (and I knew plenty of people at VMI who were expected to become x, y, or z upon graduation), I will try to help with those disciplines for which they show a keen interest. So I've tried to make sure Sam has plenty of good books in which the illustrations are just as important as the words. John J. Muth, our favorite, is a uniquely gifted storyteller whose watercolors are unsurpassed. I enjoy the books as much as Ben and Sam. Muth has garnered considerable praise for Zen Shorts, Stone Soup, The Three Questions, and his most recent, Zen Ties. In most of these works he uses ancient Buddhist teachings, reshaped in terms children can understand, to support the stories. I highly recommend all of them.

So Sam has been writing stories and illustrating them for some time. But he also keeps pads of paper, strips of construction paper, and chunks of cardboard for drawing and doodling. The first image is his take on a genie emerging from a lamp. The larger image was a product of studying Picasso and abstract art at school. It's a woman in curlers, he declared. (He often draws pictures with these looping, curving, lines. It really defines his "style" - if one can say a 7-year-old has a distinctive style.)

A New Painting - Finally

One of the first things I did yesterday when trying to function again was to sit down and paint. Indeed, as I was lying in bed with the flu, I could see my unfinished painting across the room and wished I had the energy to finish. Yet as horrible as I felt, the time was productive - visually - because I was able to study the painting and make some decisions about how to conclude.

Under normal circumstances, I'll paint a bit and at the end of the day set my work board up and study it from different angles and distances, rather like someone studying it in a gallery. From those observations I decide where to go next. So by the time I picked up the brushes on Tuesday after a several-day hiatus, I knew exactly what I needed to do to finish the work.

I realize it may seem an odd subject at first glance - a computer keyboard. But I certainly think everyday objects are fair game for artists in any medium. And there's obviously plenty of precedent. I chose this particular subject, sharply focusing on the keyboard's directional arrows, because for most of us now it's such a ubiquitous image. We conduct so much of our lives through these keys, from shopping to contacting one's friends and family. Here in New York City, for example, one could sit at the computer and literally order everything one would need to live: groceries, office supplies, entertainment, gourmet food, fast food (including McDonald's, which delivers in Manhattan), sex, toiletries, pharmaceuticals. You name it, there's someone ready to deliver it in Manhattan. Just fire up the computer. So the arrow keys symbolize choices and the directions we might take.

Realizing this is the first painting I've tackled since November, I'm not dissatisfied with the final product. I was a bit tentative at first, but the steadiness of hand finally returned . . . and it's a good thing because the pen and ink leave no margin for error. (Watercolor with Japanese pen and ink, 9"x12", Fabriano paper)

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Happy Birthday, Part 2

Remember my birthday post on January 31st? I had mentioned a photo of my mother standing in our den, about to leave for the hospital. My father has graciously tracked down the photo and sent along a scanned copy. As I noted before, my parents had only moved into the house two weeks before my birth, so the den - and I'm guessing most of that large house - had a rather spartan appearance. Although the bookshelves are full now and the room is a comfortable haven with numerous family antiques, memorabilia, and newer furniture, some things haven't changed. Indeed, I believe the magazine rack next to the chair in this photo is the same one that now sits next to my father's favorite recliner. So here's the photo. My mother may be smiling, but her eyes say, "Hurry up and take the picture."

Greetings from the Sick Bed

I am just now climbing out from under the rock that has held me in bed since early Saturday - the flu. With 103 fevers and the feeling that I had left some part of me on the subway tracks, I felt sicker than I have experienced in many years. Thankfully it didn't involve throwing up or other nasties of that nature, but the fever, sweats, aches, shakes, and consumptive cough were enough to have me moaning in typical guy fashion for days. My wife, accustomed to my sick bed histrionics, greeted it all with a mix of compassion and rolling eyes. My kids just regarded me rather suspiciously, with my older son asking me to make sure I didn't throw up on the Playstation. (Oh, if only I could have willed up some carefully aimed projectile vomiting at that very moment.) This is the first day I've been out of bed for more than trips to the bathroom. And it's amazing how quickly the ague can sap one's energy and will. At least my boss possesses a cavalier attitude about using sick days, insisting I take as long as I needed to recover. I would have gladly taken the two days at work over feeling this miserable. But for once I took sick days through which I didn't feel paranoid about missing the work! That would not have been the case in previous jobs. Back to work tomorrow - and back to regular posts - I hope.

Friday, February 8, 2008

Water Towers: Conclusion

I promise that these are the last of the water towers for a while. But I've actually had emails from readers saying they like them. Go figure. There are people out there with tastes as quirky as mine.

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Overheard at Home

My Wife, addressing my 7-year-old son, who is sitting on the couch, watching TV, with his hands down his pants, in the manner of all little boys - of any age . . .

Wife: "What are you looking for, Sam?"

Sam: "Treasure."

A female friend observed that this pretty much sums up the male psyche.

Thursday, February 7, 2008


This week is the annual "Kids' Night on Broadway" with children receiving free tickets when accompanied by an adult. We decided to take the kids to "Stomp!" - not really on Broadway, but more conveniently located at a historic Yiddish theatre in the East Village. We had seen this show about ten years ago and thought the kids would enjoy the raucous combination of dance and percussion. It did not disappoint. Both boys loved the show, particularly Benjamin, who just finished a series of classes with the National Dance Institute (NDI). Before the show we went to "Veselka," something of an East Village institution, serving Polish/Ukrainian specialties 24 hours a day. Just think "food as ballast," with kielbasa, pierogies, stuffed cabbage, and borscht headlining the menu. (I loathe beets, with a capital L, but just smiled as my wife ate her cold borscht.) Alas, no pictures were allowed in the theatre, so you only get to see the marquee.

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Wednesday, February 6, 2008

More Photos: Madison Square Park Area

There's a sharpness and tonal quality to these sepia images that I just find superior for shots of stone with high contrast. The color images I shot at the same time just don't "pop" in the same way. Even the straight black and white don't seem to have the depth and tonal variation as the sepia. (Now if only I could take these same images on a large format, 8x10 view camera, yielding old-fashioned albumen or platinum prints. Even a high-quality digital camera wouldn't be able to match the crispness and depth of those images.)

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Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Random Architectural Photos from the Weekend

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A Death in the City

To outsiders New York seems like a monolithic "Big City" in which one is swallowed up in this nebulous mass of people. Unfortunately, this stereotypical image of shoulder-to-shoulder crowds is only enhanced by the experiences of tourists who often see little more than the few blocks around Times Square - which happens to be the most non-"New York" section of Manhattan. (I avoid it all costs.) Indeed, Manhattan really feels like a bunch of little villages strung together by the subway and bus systems. Each neighborhood has its own "feel," with distinctive restaurants, shops, bodegas, parks, and personalities. Rather than feeling like some anonymous cog in the Manhattan machine, I walk around the West Village and actually know people, from friends and neighbors I pass every day, to the employees of the shops and restaurants we frequent. I'm convinced that one feels a much more personal connection to one's neighborhood in the City, its residents, and its businesses, than one might in suburbia, where so much of one's activity is defined by the automobile and the detachment of mall shopping.

Nevertheless, there are times when New York City lives up to that reputation of fostering urban anonymity. Look closely enough - particularly on the subways and in the parks - and one can see the isolation and loneliness of the solitary and silent masses. I was reminded of this stark reality the other day when two policemen showed up at my office. Apparently an elderly man had died that morning while sitting on a bench at nearby Madison Square Park. No one knew him and he apparently had no permanent address. (The fact that he didn't appear to be homeless, however, led them to believe that he was a resident of one of the neighborhood's remaining SRO's, which are typically filled with the elderly.) However, he did have a meal card from the Sunday Meals for Seniors program that we offer on the first and third Sundays of each month. The police were hoping that he had some permanent affiliation here to assist in their identification efforts. Alas, he was not a member, only a regular at the Sunday meals. So he remained just a name, with no apparent family or identification beyond the cards and slips of paper in his worn leather wallet (which the cops were carrying).

I'm left wondering what the city does with these cases. Given the substantial homeless population, I'm guessing this sort of anonymous death must be a common event. In the 18th and 19th centuries the bodies might have been taken to a "potters' field" like the one that lies under Union Square Park. But today? A city morgue? And then? Are they cremated? Taken to a public cemetery to rest anonymously for eternity, like some unknown soldier?

(Shrine, Our Lady of Padua, painted 2005, 5"x7", Fabriano paper)

Back to Painting

I haven't completed a painting since late November. In fact, until yesterday an unfinished work had sat on my work board since Thanksgiving, waiting for me to finish it. But for some reason I couldn't. I'd walk by it every day and make a mental note to myself to pick up the brushes and get to work. But it just didn't call to me; I just wasn't inspired. What I had completed - perhaps half - looked fine. Yet it just didn't "call to me" in the way so many of my paintings have "urged" me to pull the finished image from the paper. So yesterday I pulled the painting from the board and filed it away - to be completed someday, maybe, if I feel compelled to rescue it from its unfinished state.

Was it the painter's equivalent of writer's block that kept me from the brushes for two months? It certainly felt that way. I had put so much energy, physical and emotional, into preparing for the November show, that I guess the respite was needed. But in the last couple of weeks I've again felt the pull, and even had some ideas for subjects. A visit to the Museum of Modern Art for a Lucian Freud show certainly helped spark some creative energy. And this past weekend I made some sketches for a new work, which I started yesterday with over two hours of painting. It was funny how tentative it felt at first, as I worried about recapturing that steadiness of hand that had developed. However, after a few minutes I relaxed and felt that familiar ease as the paint flowed across the paper. When the painting is done, I'll scan it and post it here.

Oh . . . I was going through some of my earliest works from 2 1/2 to 3 years ago. Most of them I regard with mock horror, realizing that I've come a long way since then. But I did pull out this one image simply because I've posted photos of it in recent weeks. It's not great, but not as bad as some. (5"x5" - Arches paper)