Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Keep it Spare

Anyone who’s spent time around me knows I am nuts about preventing clutter. I work constantly to keep the level of “stuff” in my house and life very low.

I’ve told this story before, but for those of you who missed it: About 13 years ago, long before I moved to New York, I lived in a two-bedroom apartment in Florida. I’d spent years collecting mid-century furniture, china and other stuff at flea markets, and I had a huge collection of books, music and general junk. I’d just returned from two years in the Peace Corps, living very modestly, and that’s when I realized how crazy it was to own all this stuff.

Slowly but surely, I began getting rid of things. I donated a lot of it to charity and consigned some through a shop in the town where I lived. I sold a lot of stuff on eBay. I gave some things to friends. I didn’t earn a profit, but considering the use I received from everything I’d say I got my value out of it all.

By the time I moved to New York, I was down to a small apartment, with some stuff in storage at my Mom’s house. Now I live in a studio, and all that stuff in storage is gone. I have less stuff now than ever, since moving to college 23 years ago. I don't miss anything I got rid of.

It’s so freeing. Less to insure, less to worry about, less to store and clean and maintain. I always tell people that if anyone broke into my apartment, they’d be sorely disappointed!

Yesterday, however, I read about someone who’s taking this even further than I have. He’s reducing all his possessions to 100 items. I don’t think I’m quite THAT extreme.

My hints for preventing clutter?

-- Buy less! And if you buy one thing, get rid of another.
-- Throw out or file all paper as quickly as possible. Keep files to a minimum and clean them out often.
-- Buy a good shredder.
-- Only keep clothes you wear regularly (aside from a few seasonal items).
-- Indulge in sports that require little or no equipment. (running, the gym)
-- Always keep a bag designated for items going to charity. Put stuff in it and donate often.
-- Use the Library. Use Netflix.
-- Discard periodicals if you don’t read them by the time the next one comes. Don’t let them stack up. (This also eliminates “magazine guilt.”)
-- Give gifts that can be consumed, like food, gourmet coffee or wine, and urge people to give you similar gifts. Or make donations to charity in the names of your friends and family members.

(Photo: Chelsea morning, Sept. 2007)

Tuesday, October 30, 2007


I saw Wes Anderson’s new movie, “The Darjeeling Limited,” on Saturday. It’s one of these movies where the characters have such interesting exchanges that I come away wanting to communicate better in my own life. Why do I leave so many things unsaid? Why don’t I open up more?

Don't get me wrong: The movie is not weepy. The main characters are three brothers, so their communication is more visceral. Sometimes they fight, or they're uninentionally funny, or they just give meaningful looks. Still, I envy them.

Of course, what I have to remember is that movies come from a SCREENPLAY, in which responses are scripted and considered and no one ever blurts out the first thing that comes to mind. In other words, all that frank and honest exchange isn’t really honest -- it just sounds like it.

I felt this way years ago after I saw “The Secret Lives of Dentists,” in which I admired the ability of the characters played by Hope Davis and Campbell Scott to argue and fight, openly working through conflicts that among my own family members would probably produce only cool, stubborn silence.

I guess all of this comes from my roots as a repressed WASP.

Anyway, “The Darjeeling Limited” is a fun movie -- terrific atmosphere and very quirky characters and plot. Beautiful photography. And it introduced me to an interesting folk singer named Peter Sarstedt, whose late-’60s song “Where Do You Go To My Lovely?” plays a prominent role.

(Photo: Doors between Lafayette Street and Broadway, NoHo, Sept. 2007)

Monday, October 29, 2007

Hey Jack Kerouac

I’m reading “The Dharma Bums” by Jack Kerouac, in which the narrator hoboes across the United States in the ‘50s, wrestling with his own proto-Buddhist tendencies. Kerouac, binge-drinking alcoholic that he was, certainly had his attachments. But every once in a while he shows flashes of “getting it,” at least from what I can tell, my own flashes of “getting it” being few and far between as well. (And as they say, as soon as you think you’ve got it, you don’t.)

I liked this passage - complete with unconventional punctuation - in which he hits on the essential oneness of things, and the ways that all of the past snowballs down to us, becoming our reality in the present.

“It seemed that I had seen the ancient afternoon of that trail, from meadow rocks and lupine posies, to sudden revisits with the roaring stream with its splashed snag bridges and undersea greennesses, there was something inexpressibly broken in my heart as though I’d lived before and walked this trail, under similar circumstances with a fellow Bodhisattva, but maybe on a more important journey, I felt like lying down on the side of the trail and remembering it all. The woods do that to you, they always look familiar, long lost, like the face of a long-dead relative, like an old dream, like a piece of forgotten song drifting across the water, most of all like golden eternities of past childhood or past manhood and all the living and the dying and the heartbreak that went on a million years ago and the clouds as they pass overhead seem to testify (by their own lonesome familiarity) to this feeling. Ecstasy, even, I felt, with flashes of sudden remembrance, and feeling sweaty and drowsy I felt like sleeping and dreaming in the grass.”

(Photo: Mercer Street, NoHo, Sept. 2007)

Saturday, October 27, 2007

A Night at the Opera

Last night I got to experience some real highbrow entertainment - I went to the Metropolitan Opera.

A friend from the Zen center, who’s kind of an opera hound, invited me - he had tickets to Verdi’s “MacBeth.” I’ve been to exactly three operas in my entire life, but I accepted, since I’m basically up for anything.

In some ways, it was beautiful. The staging and sets were fascinating, especially the dreamlike visions of MacBeth as he’s haunted by his crimes. Plus, the Met itself is such a scene, with everyone all dressed up and those glittery starburst chandeliers hanging from the gold-leaf ceiling.

But I’m just not a huge opera fan. I admit it - I nodded off a couple of times. I can appreciate the drama, but it’s very hard for me to establish any kind of relationship with the singing or the music. Even as I sat there appreciating the artistry of the production, part of me was thinking about being home in bed.

Which is where I’m going to stay on this dark and rainy morning. The weather seems to insist on it!

(Photo: Car reflection, Chelsea, Sept. 2007)

Friday, October 26, 2007

It's a Pink Moon

One of the benefits of working at a media company is that there’s a lot of, well, media lying around.

For example, in the mailroom I recently found a discarded paperback book - a booklet, really - called “Pink Moon,” by Amanda Petrusich. It’s the story of singer/songwriter Nick Drake and his “Pink Moon” album, recorded in 1972, just a few years before Drake died from an overdose of prescription meds.

The book’s premise can basically be summarized as: “Isn’t this a great album?” It’s hard to argue with that. But it also offers an interesting history of Drake’s career, punctuated by recollections from semi-famous pop culture figures about when they first discovered him.

My Nick Drake discovery story goes like this: It was 1994, and I was wrapping up my two years in the Peace Corps. I was in Ouarzazate, Morocco, visiting an acquaintance, and we were sitting on her roof one night listening to music and talking. She played songs by two singers I’d never heard before: Nina Simone and Nick Drake.

They both blew me away. When I came back to the states several months later, I bought a Nick Drake compilation album almost immediately. I eventually traded up to CDs of his three original releases: “Five Leaves Left,” “Bryter Layter” and “Pink Moon,” the last album he completed before he died.

I don’t think of his music as gloomy, though there are certainly gloomy themes in the lyrics, and his life came to a gloomy conclusion. In fact, the music can be comforting and warm, even peppy at times. He was a masterful guitarist with a soft, mesmerizing voice, and “Bryter Layter,” in particular, comes with some snappy horn arrangements.

Have you heard Nick Drake? At the very least, if you’ve seen this - probably my favorite car commercial of all time - then you’ve heard the song “Pink Moon.”

(Photo: Tent at the P.S. 1 art museum in Long Island City, Queens - July, 2007)

Wednesday, October 24, 2007


OK, so maybe I'm not stopping after all.

My blog pal JDZS hit the nail on the head when he questioned my compulsion to write every day. I think I'm going to just loosen up the format a bit here, and instead write when I feel like I have something to say. Not only will that be far less exhausting -- it will probably also dispel my nagging feelings of blog insincerity or superfluousness. It makes sense that those feelings would arise when I'm writing just because I feel like I should.

Also, I'm doing away with those silly place/date headlines. Now that I'm posting more than photos, they're just confusing.

Isn't this exciting? The psychodrama of Steve's blog?

So, anyway, thanks for indulging me on my break, y'all. Fair warning: I'm going to take another one in about a week, when I'm going on vacation. But for now, I'm back!

Monday, October 15, 2007


Yesterday I went to the Zendo for the first time in a couple of weeks. I have been so busy that I haven’t really had a chance to sit much, and of course I was in Ithaca last weekend so I missed my normal Sunday Zendo visit.

It was interesting but difficult to sit -- my mind felt very speedy and I felt a little out of practice! But one thing came to me very clearly: I think I want to stop this blog.

I don’t know whether it’s going to be permanent. It might be. But I at least want to take a two-week break and see how things go. “Shadows and Light” has been around for a year and a half, with me writing pretty much every day, and it may have lived its life.

I find myself enjoying Flickr much more these days. I like focusing on the photography and in some ways I’ve always found this blog more constraining than satisfying. With my name attached, there’s so much I feel I can’t say.

Maybe someday I’ll create a different blog under a nom de plume. Or maybe I’ll just do photos on Flickr, since photography is what motivated my online life in the first place. Or maybe after a break I’ll pick up again here with renewed energy.

My plan is to go on blog vacation until the Monday before Halloween. (The 28th, I think?) Then I will come back and tell you what’s up. Meanwhile, I’ll keep reading all of your blogs -- and if you want to see what’s been catching my eye, visit me on Flickr!

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Ithaca, N.Y., October 2007

I went to see “Into the Wild” last night, FINALLY, and it’s a great movie. The cinematography is exceptional and really conveys the amazing beauty of Alaska, and the performances were excellent, particularly Catherine Keener, Hal Holbrook and Emile Hirsch.

It’s the story of Christopher McCandless, a recent college graduate who took the name Alexander Supertramp and hiked alone into the Alaskan wilderness, making a home for himself in an abandoned bus. He lived there for months, shooting game and gathering food, but eventually starved to death. The movie explores his motivations for rejecting modern life in search of something deeper, as well as his ultimate fate.

I can definitely identify with the desire to reject the essential trappings of our society: money, technology, status, ambition. McCandless seemed motivated by writers like Thoreau, in search of essential truths.

But he also lacked common sense, frankly, or rejected it as another impediment. He had an amazingly self-centered approach to life, abandoning his family and refusing to become bound by friendships. In choosing to live with no safety net, he left himself vulnerable, as he discovered.

I think what he lacked was balance - partly due to youthful exuberance, maybe. The practical side of me just winced when he did things like burn his cash and donate all his savings ($24,000) to charity. I mean, you want to have SOME kind of back-up plan, right? We DO live in the world, as much as we might want to reject it. Or maybe I’m just way too cautious, a trait that Alexander Supertramp would have scoffed at.

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Mercer Street, SoHo, Sept. 2007

This is a Reya-esque photo: Reflections of buildings in a car window.

Thank God it's the weekend! And I have no plans to speak of, which is a welcome relief. I'm going to a movie with some friends, and I'll go to the gym and the Zendo tomorrow - that's about it. I love unstructured free time, especially in this amazing crisp weather.

My recent talk of favorite music prompted a friend to send me an article about Joni Mitchell's newest album. I didn't even know she was still recording - last I'd heard, she quit to focus on painting. This was my favorite line:

Record company executives today, she said, "want clones ... They don't love music. They love golf and porno."

Friday, October 12, 2007

Mercer Street, August 2007

The creature above, by street artist Dirty Boards, may as well be me celebrating my 15 minutes of fame.

Another of our New York street artists, who goes by the name BilliKid, makes big posters of a pink Cadillac convertible with his buddies behind the wheel -- artist friends, gallery owners or street art photographers. I have been so honored. That’s right, folks - I’m currently driving the Caddy on West 27th Street.

Check it out here.

BilliKid met me a couple of weeks ago and took my photo. He then used it to work me into his cartoon fantasy. I even have a personalized license plate!

I haven’t yet gone to see it myself. The weather this week has been so miserably rainy and my schedule has been so busy that I just haven’t been able to trek over there. I hope to see it this weekend - if it’s not gone by then! (That’s one of the uncertainties of street art - it could last months, or it could be torn down almost immediately.)

Oh, and as for the best Beatles song - I promised this discussion yesterday - I personally go for the later Beatles, and I like their more unusual stuff. “I Am the Walrus,” for example, is a great song. And of course I like “Yesterday” and “Hey Jude” and “The Long and Winding Road,” but they’re not challenging enough to be the best, in my opinion.

I opt for “A Day in the Life,” from the Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album. With those mysterious lyrics - “four thousand holes in Blackburn Lancashire” - and that intense orchestral crescendo at the end, well, it wins my vote.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Bleecker Street, Sept. 2007

At work yesterday we were editing a story about vinyl records, and the fact that some people prefer them to CDs or MP3 recordings. The writer included her own list of the top 10 recommended vinyl albums. But we were hesitant to use her list -- we wanted a more “expert” source. So we consulted Rolling Stone magazine. All this got us talking about favorite albums.

Making a list like this is so difficult - it morphs and changes depending on criteria. Are we talking about top-selling albums? Artistically significant albums? Albums we listen to the most?

I was glad to see that Rolling Stone had something like four or five Beatles albums in its top ten of all time, a list published in 2003. That’s staying power! Then again, Joni Mitchell’s “Blue” album, which I think is one of the best recordings ever made, was way down at No. 30.

So, you know, it’s all subjective.

In addition to “Blue,” and most everything by the Beatles after about 1964, my own top 10 would have to include “Bookends” by Simon & Garfunkel, though virtually any of their albums could justifiably claim a spot. I love early albums by Cat Stevens, Carly Simon, Joan Baez and Peter, Paul and Mary. More recent brilliant albums would have to include Tracy Chapman’s first, and Sinead O’Connor’s “I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got.” (Both almost 20 years old now -- yikes!)

We also got onto a discussion about the best Beatles song. But I’ll save that debate for tomorrow!

Here now, by request, for my friend Lettuce, is a picture of my Laurel Burch mug -- which I wrote about a couple of days ago. Cool, huh?

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Ithaca, N.Y., October 2007

When we were in Ithaca, my friend David decided to buy some inexpensive sunglasses, because he'd left his at home. So we stopped in at an optician, where the glasses were way too expensive, but the shadows from the window display were just right!

And now, I’m just lying in bed with the cat, drinking coffee and listening to the rain. My kind of morning!

Tuesday, October 9, 2007

Ithaca, N.Y., October 2007

I just heard the other day that Ingmar Bergman died at the end of July. It took me a while to figure out that this must have happened while I was on my Zen sesshin retreat, which is why I had no idea. I was sorry to hear it, as he’s one of my favorite directors.

People think Bergman’s movies are bleak, but I think their austerity is what makes them so beautiful. They’re harsh but honest, with no distracting frills. I like that sense of Scandinavian economy! And they’re never boring, though sometimes it takes a while for me to muster the psychological energy to tackle a Bergman film. I’ve had “Through a Glass Darkly,” “Winter Light” and “The Silence” - collectively known as the Trilogy of Faith - sitting in my Netflix queue for months. I keep moving them down the list.

Another noteworthy recent death: Laurel Burch, a designer most famous for colorful products featuring cats. Right before I went to live in Morocco in 1992, I bought a Laurel Burch mug, and I actually took it with me into the Peace Corps. It was decorated with images of people in colorful costumes and called “Familia del Mundo,” which seemed appropriately Peace Corps-ish.

I was so attached to that mug, having my coffee from it every morning, that my friends used to joke that I’d have to go home if it ever broke.

Fortunately, it never broke. I still have it. In fact, I’m drinking from it now!

Monday, October 8, 2007

Ithaca, N.Y., October 2007

In 1992, when I was 25 and about to leave for the Peace Corps, I hopped into a car with two friends and drove cross-country from Florida to Ithaca, N.Y. Our destination: Moosewood Restaurant, the vegetarian cooperative that spawned a couple of cookbooks and fed my vegetarian imagination, as well as my vegetarian stomach.

I was still learning how to be a vegetarian then, and the Moosewood cookbooks were my Bibles. They showed me that vegetarian food didn’t have to be nuts and twigs. (Though personally, I kind of like nuts and twigs!) My friends and I ate there three times, filled the in-between hours exploring Ithaca, and then drove home again.

When I moved to New York in 2000, I was eager to get back to Ithaca and spend a little more time. Of course, life intervened and I didn’t get to go back until this weekend.

What a great town! With a bit of fall in the air, the leaves on the maples were beginning to change. Not only did I go back to Moosewood - which is still terrific and which has expanded quite a bit since my last visit - but my friend David and I got to explore some of the nearby state parks and natural areas.

Ithaca is surrounded by rivers and streams feeding into Lake Cayuga, one of the finger lakes, and those waterways have carved all sorts of narrow trenches and valleys into the surrounding hills. There are several state parks around with waterfalls, rushing rapids and serene woodlands. I saw about a zillion chipmunks.

We went to an antique shop in quaint Trumansburg, where David got overcharged by $5 for some old postcards and photos, and we also wandered near the campus of Cornell University and explored downtown Ithaca, which has a lot of cool shops and restaurants and photo opportunities. Of course, I even found some cool street art!

Friday, October 5, 2007

Lower East Side, Sept. 2007

You know, nearly every day I write something here that makes it sound like I have my act together. (I like to reinforce that idea, even for myself.) Well, today I have to burst that annoying bubble and make a confession.

I can be a hypochondriac.

I know, I know - I’m all about letting things be and facing the ever-changing moment. But this is one part of my life where I utterly fail at taking my own advice -- when my mind takes me so far out of reality I can’t even tell what reality is.

It started in seventh grade or so. A boy in my hometown died from a rare brain infection that he contracted swimming in one of our many lakes. I spent nearly every day in the lake in summer, and as a result I became terrified that I’d been exposed to this same malady. (My family still calls this the time I “got the amoeba.”)

I went through a similar spell over rabies when I discovered a sick squirrel in a vacant lot near my house. I came home and told my mom about it. She said, “You didn’t TOUCH the squirrel, did you?” And of course I had. I was terrified for days.

I still have this tendency. A swollen lymph node makes me wonder about cancer. I worry about HIV, even when I don’t do anything that would give me HIV. My asthma, which came back to life early this week, is at least partly stress induced -- and the more it flares up, the more stressed I get.

The best way to treat my asthma, I have found, is to take it easy. Watch a lot of movies, go to bed early, skip the gym for a couple of days. That’s what I’ve been doing this week, and it’s been working.

I don't like admitting that this part of me exists. But there it is. Really facing life means even facing the parts of ourselves we don't particularly like -- right?

I’m going to continue the relaxation trend this weekend by going to Ithaca with my friend David. We’ll probably do some easy hiking and eating out and exploring. A full report to follow on Monday! Have a good weekend!

Thursday, October 4, 2007

Ludlow Street, Sept. 2007

I didn't mean to imply yesterday that anything even remotely exciting kept me from getting to work on time. I was just late and didn't have time to write. I had a lousy night's sleep because my asthma was acting up a bit. Fortunately, last night things were fine and I slept soundly.

I love this piece of street art. It seems to be telling us that insects have hearts too! So remember that next time you reach for the Raid!

The lobby is being remodeled in the building where I live, as I think I've mentioned before. Today I'll be staying home at least part of the day because the workmen need to drill an access hole for a TV cable (even though I don't have cable myself!) as well as paint the front door. I have to hang out here until the paint dries because the apartment door has to stay open until then. So, yes, I will literally be watching paint dry. Woo hoo!

Wednesday, October 3, 2007

Tuesday, October 2, 2007

Greenwich Avenue, Sept. 2007

You’ve seen that annoying e-mail spam that contains a string of nonsense words as well as an advertisement (probably for Viagra). All those nonsense words are there to confuse spam filters, to convince them that the e-mail is legitimate communication.

Well, yesterday I got one of these messages. But the nonsense turned out to be a sort of found poetry. It didn’t mean anything taken all together, but the lines were quite beautiful:
Wide, whited fields, a way unframed at last
Glimmering of light:
What is there in the depths of these walls
Wind, sleet. The branches sway,
into early blooming. Then, the inevitable blizzard
The surge of swirling wind defines
So, startled, quivering,
At four, the spectators leave in pairs, off
A salamander scuttles across the quiet
Covering the land
Down the road, at Cypress Gardens, a woman
XII. The Mystery of the Missing Ships: The Franklin Search
As it sits there like an eventual
Empty streets I come upon by chance,
Between the vertex that the far-lit gray
As if your absence now concluded long ago.
on their own little seat cushions, wearing soft caps
Glimmering of light:
Coextensive with everything? How could they know?
As I read it, I thought, "What IS this?" These were definitely snippets of someone’s real writing. I was especially intrigued with the line mentioning Cypress Gardens, since I lived in Winter Haven, Fla., for several years - the home of Cypress Gardens. So with Google’s help, I began searching.

I learned several things. First of all, apparently this is a really common spam poem! Many other bloggers have written about receiving these same lines, or varying mixtures of them. But I was also able to trace the words back to their original source, which turns out to be here.

All but one of the lines in my spam poem were stolen from this University of Chicago Press Web page, from the work of poets like John Hollander, Gail Mazur, Robert Pack, Yves Bonnefoy and even Paul Verlaine and Victor Hugo. The only line not from this page is the one about “the mystery of the missing ships,” which turns out to be a chapter title from this book, by Jeannette Mirsky, mentioned on another page on the same Web site.

So let's give credit where it's due. Here’s a code to the authors of each line, by initials:
(JH) Wide, whited fields, a way unframed at last
(PV) Glimmering of light:
(YB) What is there in the depths of these walls
(VH) Wind, sleet. The branches sway,
(GM) into early blooming. Then, the inevitable blizzard
(RP) The surge of swirling wind defines
(VH) So, startled, quivering,
(GM) At four, the spectators leave in pairs, off
(GM) A salamander scuttles across the quiet
(PV) Covering the land
(GM) Down the road, at Cypress Gardens, a woman
(JM) XII. The Mystery of the Missing Ships: The Franklin Search
(JH) As it sits there like an eventual
(YB) Empty streets I come upon by chance,
(JH) Between the vertex that the far-lit gray
(RP) As if your absence now concluded long ago.
(GM) on their own little seat cushions, wearing soft caps
(PV) Glimmering of light:
(JH) Coextensive with everything? How could they know?
Do I have too much time on my hands, or what?!

Monday, October 1, 2007

Upper East Side, Sept. 2007

An utterly random news update on my weekend activities:

-- I finally went to S'Mac, the macaroni-and-cheese restaurant in the East Village. This tiny place can get very crowded, and in the past I've left without ordering. It was all the rage when it first opened early this year. Maybe things have cooled off a bit, because when I walked by on Saturday at lunch there were actually empty tables! I had macaroni with Spanish manchego cheese, fennel and shallots. Yum!

-- Had dinner with my friends Pam and Bryan on Saturday. Ordered "smoked asian chili" from a Chinese restaurant because I thought it sounded interesting. But it turned out not to be chili as in beans, but chili as in big green chili peppers - with nothing else - and they were bloody HOT. Not sure what I was thinking. Trying new things has its downside.

-- Somehow, in the course of growing up, I missed ever seeing the movie "Caddyshack," even though it was all the rage when I was in high school. Finally watched it last night. Funny, more or less, but probably funnier to a 16-year-old.

-- I don't really follow college football, but I have to point out that my alma mater, the University of South Florida, is having a killer season! The Bulls are ranked #6 in the country, having just beaten both Auburn and West Virinia. This is a school that didn't even HAVE a football team when I went there, and the fact that even I can get excited about this ought to show how amazing it is!

-- Took lots of photos! Wandered through parts of the East Village (a regular haunt) and the far West Village and Tribeca, near the entrance to the Holland Tunnel. Found lots of street art I'd never seen before. Should be up on my Flickr in about a month. (I'm SO behind.)

-- The weather this weekend was AMAZING!