Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Upper East Side, October 2006

From last night:

My apartment is quiet as I write this. My cat is lying on the couch, watching me with bored disinterest through half-lidded eyes. The overhead light glows in soft-focus in the finish on my coffee table. Sure, my steam radiator is faintly hissing, and there’s a siren outside on Third Avenue. But in New York, this passes for quiet.

These past few weeks have reminded me that I’ve got to aggressively seek quiet time, time to breathe and sit and experience the depth and vastness of each moment. I touched on this yesterday when I mentioned sitting, but even when I’m not sitting, I need to be more careful about reserving time and space for myself.

Like many of us, I tend to get swept along by the current of daily activities, and I wind up doing insane things like going to four stage shows in one weekend (last weekend), bracketed by trips to the gym, dinners and lunches with friends, board meetings and committee meetings and volunteer work. Don’t get me wrong: I love my friends, I’m glad I get invited out, and I certainly wouldn’t want that to end. But I tend to let my quiet time be merely the time I’m not doing something else, and it erodes in the current until there’s almost none left.

So I’m going to work harder to make quiet time happen. I’m going to schedule it into my calendar. I need to notice the quiet hiss of my radiator, and the distant sounds of the traffic on a cold night, and the soft golden glow of the overhead light.

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Williamsburg, Brooklyn, Sept. 2006

Looks a bit summery, doesn't it? Just thought I'd whet your appetite for warmer weather and feathery shadows of leaves.

I finally got to go to the Zendo last night - the Zen center where I practice - after about two weeks away. It was so nice to be still after a long period of hyperactivity. I felt much clearer and calmer after three periods of sitting. Whenever I have a gap in my practice like this, I always leave wondering why I allowed it to happen.

It can be hard to sit in the daily rush of activity - it always seems like the one thing that can be put off until later, which is kind of funny, because it has such a profound effect on my state of mind. Why don't I put off making the bed?

Monday, January 29, 2007

E. 41st Street, January 2007

Go ahead - scream. You know you want to.

This is the unbelievable window display at Classic Nail, on the ground floor of the Chanin Building. Apparently the owners think these disembodied hands will make people want to get a manicure.

It looks like a nail salon run by Morticia Addams, doesn't it? With Thing as the principle model?

What makes it even worse is that these hands are FILTHY. They've obviously been sitting in that window for a while, absorbing all manner of noxious city soot.

But don't just window-shop. You too can have glorious claws like this! Just make your way down to Classic Nail!

Sunday, January 28, 2007

Chelsea, August 2006

I see this tag all over town, and it's always pink. In this case, I liked the color-coordination with the beige wall.

The charity book sale at my office finally came to an end on Friday, and we spent yesterday selling the 8,000-or-so leftover volumes to a bulk buyer, packing them up and totaling the receipts. Altogether we earned more than $40,000, making this our best year ever by far. (Last year’s receipts added up to $28,500.)

In addition to being able to feel good about raising money for a good cause, I like working for the book sale because I get first crack at the books!

Here’s what I came away with this year:

1. “Buddha or Bust,” Perry Garfinkel -- Garfinkel travels the globe to discover the heart of Buddhism and the reasons for its growing popularity, and discovers himself some things about himself in the process.

2. “Freakonomics,” Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner -- If morality represents how we would like the world to work, then economics represents how it really does work.

3. “Songs of the South,” Jennie Thornley Clarke (ed.) -- A 1913 volume of Reconstruction-era odes to Confederate soldiers and cotton bolls, by poets including Edgar Allan Poe and Sidney Lanier.

4. “Simple Gifts: Lessons in Living from a Shaker Village,” June Sprigg -- Sprigg’s memoir of living with elderly Shaker women in a vanishing settlement in New Hampshire in 1972.

5. “Lullaby,” Chuck Palahniuk -- A novelist I’ve wanted to try.

6. “Caught in Fading Light: Mountain Lions, Zen Masters, and Wild Nature,” Gary Thorp -- A Zen practitioner walks the woods of Northern California, in search of a mountain lion.

7. “Tropical Fish: A Golden Guide” -- I don’t have an aquarium now, but I had one as a child, and this small paperback reminds me of all my fish. (Plus, for a variety of reasons, it was free!)

8. “New York: The Movie Lover’s Guide,” Richard Alleman -- The classic guide to who did what where in New York, on- and off-screen.

9. “Gone to New York,” Ian Frazier -- Essays from a writer for The New Yorker and other magazines.

All of this cost me $26.50. Not too shabby!

Saturday, January 27, 2007

Upper East Side, October 2006

This strange creature crawled out of the evolutionary muck and right onto a sidewalk on the Upper East Side. Is it a portrait of someone's pet? A drawing by a child who wants to be a paleontologist? A Geico advertisement? We will never know.

It's been blisteringly cold the last few days, at least for New York. (Minnesotans would probably scoff!) Our low yesterday was 9 degrees, though the temperature right now is a comparatively cozy 24. As a Florida native, it took me a while to learn how to dress in weather like this, and I still don't always do it well. I have to remind myself: Layers. Layers. Layers.

That helps even in my office, which is very drafty. On cold days I get a chilly wind sweeping across my desk from a crack in the window frame, and my "mouse hand" always gets REALLY cold. A strange work complaint, I know.

Friday, January 26, 2007

Tribeca, December 2006

After a busy week working at the book sale and having other business almost every night, this (above) is what I want to do this weekend.

Working at the book sale has been interesting. It’s got me thinking about consumerism. We all know Americans are just out of control when it comes to shopping, but here’s a brilliant example.

The book sale is comprised mainly of used books, but we also get a small amount of donated merchandise from the publication where I work. Some is sent by manufacturers who hope we’ll run an article about it; some is purchased for photo layouts to accompany stories on design and fashion. It then goes to the sale, with the proceeds going to charity.

One of my coworkers bought some merchandise yesterday, including a pillar candle in a simple glass holder, inside a cloth bag, inside a minimalist cardboard box. It bore the name Manolo Blahnik, of the shoe empire. (Who knew Manolo made candles?)

My coworker bought this candle for $5. She then came back to her desk and began researching her purchases to find out what they retail for. Turns out that candle sells for $75 at Bergdorf-Goodman.

I repeat: $75 for a CANDLE.

Do I even have to point out that this is crazy? There’s no other word for it. (Except possibly obscene.)

But here’s what’s also interesting: My coworker got much more enthusiastic about the candle when she found this out. It wasn’t just the candle that excited her; it was the bargain. She wasn’t interested only in the value of the candle to HER; she was interested in its value to society, relative to what she paid for it.

After all, these candles really aren’t candles. They are containers for the Manolo Blahnik name, and all its attendant chic and status. When you buy a $75 candle, the object itself is the least of your purchase.

I'd say she paid about what it's worth.

Thursday, January 25, 2007

E. 29th Street, January 2007

We're back in New York with today's photos...back on the street where I live, in fact. I've noticed in the past week or so that the sun seems to rise almost exactly at the end of the street, over the East River. It blazes up, a big orange ball, and sends its rays down the center of the road, no doubt causing a lot of cursing among eastbound drivers on adjacent streets. (Fortunately, my street runs one-way westbound. I wonder if the setting sun does the same thing?)

When it first appears the sun just skims the buildings, giving only select bits a warm glow. This is the Carlton Hotel, an ornate, recently renovated hotel at Madison Avenue and 29th Street. I've never been inside, but one of these days I'm going to check it out, because it was under renovation for a long time and looks quite swanky. There's a promising-looking restaurant in the basement called, ironically, Country.

I took these photos on an icy morning last Saturday, and a few minutes later actually slipped and fell on the sidewalk, causing a perfect stranger to ask if I was OK. Come to think of it, that's the same day I later dropped my camera. I hope I've used up my annual quotient of klutziness!

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Washington, D.C., January 2007

I found this ethereal smattering of reflected light on a wall at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, on Massachusetts Avenue N.W.

I spent several hours yesterday as cashier at our charity book sale, and I had a ball! I was a cashier in high school and college, at places as diverse as McDonald's and Scotty's Hardware, and I always liked the interaction with people. It's especially great at the book sale, because it gives me a chance to talk to fellow employees who I see all the time in the building, but don't really know.

Weird things

My buddy Pod from Down Under has tagged me with some kind of blog chain letter. (I think this is known as a meme?) Thanks, Pod - I think.

Each tagged player is supposed to list “6 weird things about you.” Then we choose six more bloggers to be tagged, give their names and notify them through their blog comments. They each then make their own lists and tag six more bloggers, and so on.

So, here are six weird things about Steve:

1. I like overcooked, slightly crunchy rice scraped from the bottom of the pot. Even better if it’s a bit blackened.

2. I had a pet turtle when I was a child, which I named Stunky. (My brother’s turtle was named Stinky.) I also owned or co-owned numerous fish, numerous dogs, numerous cats and a gerbil named Tivoli. And I named all my houseplants.

3. I do not like shoes. But I wear them because, well, I have to.

4. I speak some Tashelhait, a Moroccan Berber dialect. Here’s an expression: “Imiks imiks ekshim aram tagdoult,” which means, “Little by little, the camel goes into the pot.” (In other words, an enormous task is accomplished bit by bit.)

5. I’ve done drag twice, both times at Halloween. In 1990 I was an old lady, and in 1991 I was a saucy waitress.

6. When I was a teenager in the early 1980s, I was obsessed with the Fifth Dimension, and I had all their albums - even though all my classmates were listening to New Wave. I also had a thing for Melanie, best known for singing, "I've got a brand new pair of roller skates, you've got a brand new key..."

OK, Pod, there you have it. And now, I’m going to break the second half of your game requirement, because I make it a rule never to pass on chain letters. (If anyone reading this wants to "opt in," though, consider yourself tagged!)

To make up for it, I’ll list a seventh weird thing:

7. Shortly after I moved to New York, I attended the FiFi Awards, which are the Oscars of the perfume industry. How did this happen? Well, it’s a long story. Suffice to say it’s all about who you know.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Washington, D.C., January 2007

The shadows from these tables and chairs look like some kind of giant swans, with wings spread. I picked up a lot of blank space in the foreground because there was some stuff at the top of the photo that I wanted to avoid. At first I thought it was too much blank space...but then I decided I liked it.

When I was in the Peace Corps in Morocco, my high school friend Kevin - who I visited on my trip to D.C. last weekend - was one of my most faithul letter-writing correspondents. Kevin was about to start his own Peace Corps adventure, so I suppose he was sensitive to the plight of a poor overseas aid worker sequestered in some dusty village.

In one of his letters, Kevin sent me an article by a guy named John Weir from the January 1993 issue of Details. Titled "Getting a Life," it was all about the paths Weir and his friends took after graduating from college, trying to make their way in the world.

Something about that article really spoke to me. I guess I identified with it, being not long out of college myself. I read it and kept it, and in fact I'm holding it now, a battered photocopy with Kevin's letter still attached and the staple coming out. I kept an eye out for other things by Weir, occasionally seeing short pieces in magazines or anthologies, but oddly, it wasn't until last year that I bought his two novels, "The Irreversible Decline of Eddie Socket" and "What I Did Wrong." I read them over the past month or so.

I liked "Eddie Socket," the story of a young, artistic, slacker-ish gay guy in New York City during the dark days of the AIDS crisis in the 1980s. It was not a happy book, but it made good reading. Weir wrote it more than 15 years ago, and then didn't publish another book until "What I Did Wrong," which came out last spring. I was less impressed with "Wrong," which was more like a non-linear series of related vignettes. Where "Eddie Socket" was all youthful energy and angst, "Wrong" was middle-aged malaise and regret. In a note on Amazon, Weir said he initially wrote a large amount of text and then cut it down to its current length, and I understood then why it felt a little jumpy. It seems like parts of it are missing.

Still, I was happy to find more work by John Weir. I remain an admirer.

Monday, January 22, 2007

Washington, D.C., January 2007

I love the long shadows at this time of year. These, outside the Library of Congress, were particularly cool - so neatly parallel. I tried to photograph them, but with limited success. Then I noticed that although it was about 30 degrees, quite a few hardcore joggers were out and about. So I began working them into the picture, too.

The joggers definitely animated the photos, making them more lively. Unfortunately, waiting with my fingers exposed to the cold made them very numb, which probably contributed to me dropping my camera a few moments later. (See yesterday's entry.)

Our big book sale begins at work today. I spent yesterday afternoon hauling boxes of donated books, sorting and shelving and putting things in order. I've been pretty good about not buying too many books myself, although it's tempting. I already have so much to read!

Sunday, January 21, 2007

Hell's Kitchen, Sept. 2006

Graffiti painters seem unable to resist white panel trucks, I suppose because they're so big and blank and just CRYING OUT for decoration. This bit of graffiti was part of a much larger bunch of tags on a truck parked on 11th Avenue, near the Javits Convention Center.

I'm a bit late with my posting today because I've been on a train all morning, coming back from a quick visit to Washington, D.C. I went down yesterday to see my cousin Kristine, who is about to move to Sydney, Australia. The family gave her a little party last night, with Australian food like Vegemite and chocolate-covered cakes called lamingtons (sp?). For the record, I do not understand the appeal of Vegemite at all. (Perhaps my pal Pod can enlighten us?)

I also had lunch with my friends Liz and Kevin near Eastern Market, and wandered around the area east of the Capitol to do some photography. It was beautiful and clear and cold and windy, and quite fun until...

...I dropped my camera on Pennsylvania Avenue, jamming the lens and basically destroying it. I've been talking about upgrading to a better camera for a while, so my friends will be perplexed to know that instead of seizing this opportunity, I went right out to Best Buy yesterday afternoon and bought pretty much the same camera all over again. When it came down to it, I chose security - the certainty of what I know - especially given that I wanted to take photos last night at our party.

Saturday, January 20, 2007

SoHo, October 2006

SoHo has many buildings with cast iron facades, which allow an amazing degree of precise detail. This photo seems very quiet to me, so I think I'll just be quiet and let you enjoy it.

Friday, January 19, 2007

Houston Street, Sept. 2006

Fire escapes make some of the most interesting shadows! I like their clean lines and angularity. Like Venetian blinds, which also cast great shadows, they create an orderly, regular rhythm.

Orderliness appeals to me. For example, I spent yesterday afternoon sorting books in the basement of the building where I work. Every year the employees host a used book sale, with the proceeds going to charity, and this year I'm one of the organizers. So I'm spending a lot of time digging through bins of donated books and boxing them by category: hardcover fiction, science and nature, biography, business and economics.

Doing this, I'm reminded that there are a hell of a lot of books out there. It's enough to temper any ideas I might have about writing a book of my own. For every "Freakonomics" there are hundreds of other books that sink into obscurity, and when you think about all the labor that went into those, well, it's kind of overwhelming. (It's a bit like blogging, actually - you have to write a book or keep a blog because you enjoy it, not because you expect someone to read it!)

But I enjoy the sorting. It appeals to my nature as an organizer, and being organized is my main asset. I have never had a good memory (which I think actually helps me in my Zen practice - I live in the present because I can't remember the past!) and I am not clever with quips or fast thinking. I'm a ponderer. But I like everything in its place, a tendency that has served me well.

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Hell's Kitchen, December 2006

Several months ago on BlueJake, his excellent photography Web site, Jake Dobkin mentioned the concept of "punctum," and it's been rolling around in my head ever since.

In "Camera Lucida," Roland Barthes argued that punctum is a quality that must be present in an effective photograph. According to Jake, Barthes defined it as "that accident which pricks, bruises me."

Jake added: "It's a hard concept to pin down, but I've come to think of it as a certain detail in the picture that animates the composition. Without punctum, photos can be beautiful in a formal sense - with symmetries and color and so on - but they feel dead. They don't draw you in."

Jake said he believes punctum is most easily triggered by images we can relate to, such as those of people and animals. It's harder to find in landscapes or architectural photography, and Jake suggested that one way to add punctum to an otherwise static composition is to wait until someone wanders into the picture. (He admits that this is "cheating," and the punctum it provides can be superficial.)

I've thought about this a lot as I wander the city taking photos. Sometimes I specifically ask myself, "Yes, it's a nice shot, but does it have punctum?" In this case, I thought I'd experiment by taking one photo with a person and one without.

Admittedly, the person in my first photo is not the most interesting fellow. But I think Jake is right - in comparison, it is a more interesting picture. I think the second shot would have been fine by itself, but seen alongside the first, it looks awfully empty.

Then again, much of this depends on the photographer's goal. In my case, emptiness, transience, stillness and spaciousness are qualities that I try to convey in my photos, which I take with an eye toward advancing Buddhist ideas. So for that purpose, the second image may be the better one.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Meatpacking District, August 2006

I love peeling paint. You wonder how long a paint job perseveres in the city before curling in on itself and letting go. Is this paint 40 years old, or is it five?

This building once served as a temporary home for the LGBT community center, on Little West 12th Street. The Center set up shop there while its regular quarters on 13th Street were being renovated. When I first came to New York, in 2000, I went to several events there, so I have a nostalgic fondness for it. But the neighborhood has since been taken over by swanky hotels, restaurants, boutiques and clubs; I don't go there much anymore, except to wander through with my camera.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Chinatown, Sept. 2006

This dragon peers down from the roof of Chinatown’s tourist information center on Canal Street. He’s right around the corner from one of my favorite neighborhood restaurants, XO Cafe on Walker Street, where I sometimes get takeout bubble tea.

Bubble tea, in case you’ve never had it, is sweet milky iced tea (I usually get the taro variety) with pearls of chewy tapioca at the bottom. It’s served with a wide straw, so that you can suck up the tapioca with the tea and give it a good chew. I know, I know: How disgusting. Well, lemme tell you, just try it. It’s awesome.

I’ve developed a tendency to buy occasional gummy food. The cafeteria at work sometimes sells bags of Japanese Kasugai gummy candies, and I pick those up too - but mostly for the strained English phrases used on the packaging.

From the apple gummy bag: “Every drop of fresh apple juice, carefully pressed from the reddest apples, shining in colors of the cheeks of a snow-country child, is yours to enjoy in each soft and juicy Kasugai Apple Gummy.”

From the grape: “Enjoy the softness of gentle breeze that sweeps through the vineyard spread vast on the hill in each soft and juicy Kasugai Grape Gummy.”

Now, doesn’t that make you want to crack open your wallet?

Monday, January 15, 2007

Gouldsboro, Pa., January 2007

Sorry for abandoning the blog yesterday. I went for a weekend visit to the Poconos, in northeastern Pennsylvania, where some friends own a vacation house. I thought I’d post an update from there, but they didn’t have a computer handy - and it’s just as well, because it broke my Internet habit for a day.

Their house, near the town of Gouldsboro, is surrounded by these woods. The weather was chilly, misty and gray all weekend. We got out a little - we drove the winding roads to Skytop Lodge, a luxe hotel, where we had French onion soup and locally brewed beer. We visited the desolate wreck of an abandoned honeymoon lodge where I was dying to take photos, but of course I’d left my camera back at the house. (Note to self: NEVER leave camera behind!)

With the weather so damp, we spent most of the weekend watching DVDs. It was a “camp-out,” or maybe a “camping trip” - we watched “Valley of the Dolls” (one of my favorites, you'll remember) followed by “Mommie Dearest.” Imagine seven gay men watching two of the campiest movies ever made. Too many of us knew all the lines. It was frightening.

It got me thinking about the nature of camp, that invisible line between tragedy and comedy. When does a movie break down the wall between drama and melodrama, becoming SO dramatic that it’s actually hilarious? I’d never seen “Mommie Dearest” before this weekend, and parts of it are genuinely horrifying - but then Faye Dunaway gets a crazed look in her eye, flexing her red-nailed claws and lunging at her daughter’s neck - and you can’t help but laugh. It’s so over the top.

I’ve never read Susan Sontag’s “Notes on Camp,” but I think I should. I want to understand this better. I especially like the fact that almost all of us responded so strongly to one or both of these movies. That special marriage between gay culture and camp created a warm, almost familial bond as we sat before the fireplace watching Patty Duke screech at her co-stars. It was a nice antidote to the chilly damp of the woods outside.

Saturday, January 13, 2007

Montauk, N.Y., December 2006

Someone wrote this on an exterior wall at the Montauk train station. I have no idea what it could mean. Is someone feeling badly treated? Insulting a romantic adversary? There’s a whole short story tied up in those two words.

Speaking of not knowing what something means, have you ever believed that you knew the definition of a word, and in fact used it quite confidently, only to find years later that you were totally off base? That happened to me yesterday. I was reading an article in the newspaper that mentioned someone living on “Nimrod Street.” I thought, why on earth would a street be named “Nimrod Street,” when “nimrod” means a stupid person?

Except that it doesn’t. I looked it up in Webster's New Collegiate Dictionary and it’s actually another word for a hunter, taken from the name of Noah’s great-grandson in the Old Testament.

Where, I wondered, did I ever get the idea that “nimrod” meant a dimwit? I looked around online and found another definition from the American Heritage Dictionary that proved me not entirely wrong: “(informal) A person regarded as silly, foolish or stupid.”

Here’s the interesting part - the dictionary’s explanation for that definition: “Probably from the phrase ‘poor little Nimrod,’ used by the cartoon character Bugs Bunny to mock the hapless hunter Elmer Fudd.”

I bet that’s where I learned the word - as a child, watching Bugs Bunny. Bugs was referring to Elmer’s position as a hunter, and I - and apparently thousands of other people - thought he was referring to Elmer’s intelligence.


I wonder what “ultramaroon” really means?

Friday, January 12, 2007

Tribeca, December 2006

With the winter sun so low in the sky, often only the tops of buildings get direct sunlight. Because the streets are in shadow, I notice reflections a lot more. My eye is drawn to the sun shining up at me from puddles and car windows. This Toyota was parked on Franklin Street, offering a great view of the ornate buildings above.

Last night was a rarity. For once, I had nowhere to go. I was free to wander home at my own pace. So I decided to take the trip slowly and deliberately, to really experience my brief crosstown commute.

I left the office, descending into the windy, crowded night of Times Square. As I passed the neon and billboards I paid attention to my breath, as we’re taught to do in Zen - it’s a meditation technique that helps keep you in the present. I followed it in and followed it out as I walked. I took note of the signs and faces. I didn’t get impatient when people slowed in front of me; I just matched my pace to theirs. At that moment, theirs was the pace of my world, and I didn’t fight to change it.

In the subway, I didn’t run to catch the departing shuttle train to Grand Central Station, which I have been known to do. I just walked to the platform and waited for the next one. And after getting off the subway in my neighborhood, I walked to the grocery store and tried to really experience my shopping trip: the weight of the soup cans, the burning cold of the frozen orange juice, the heft of the overpriced pears. I stayed with my breath the whole time, inhaling and exhaling.

No great revelation - only my ordinary life. But I was there to experience it, for a change.

Thursday, January 11, 2007

Greenwich Village, Sept. 2006

Hiya back...

We actually had snow yesterday! I was sitting at my desk at work at around 10 a.m. when I looked up and saw swirling sifts of white. I couldn't believe it! It was over by about 10:03, and none of it stuck, but still - winter had arrived. Then, within minutes, the sun came out, though temperatures have remained chilly. And this is just four days after our 72-degree record-breaker on Saturday. It all reminds me of that cryptic line in the folk song "Oh, Susanna," which I'm sure all of us learned in elementary school music class: "Sun so hot, I froze to death."

I went with my friend David last night to see Stephen Sondheim's "Company" on Broadway. Such a great show. I could totally identify with Bobby's matchmaking quandary. And the staging of this production was really great - a very minimalist set where, as in the recent production of "Sweeney Todd," the actors play all the instruments. (Where do they find people who can sing, act AND play the tuba?)

Had more fun spam yesterday: One e-mail allegedly about a "resplendent debutante," and another promising "stainless steel rats!" (Yeah, like we need those in New York.)

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Astoria, Queens, January 2007

It could be Santorini, but it's not - it's Queens! Astoria was my goal when I went exploring on Sunday. It's a heavily Greek neighborhood in northwestern Queens along the East River, where the ornate porch railings and the white lacy curtains in the windows definitely bring Athens to mind. Of course, this being New York, other cultural influences are there, too. For example, when I got hungry, I stopped in at the Neptune Diner for some lemon meringue pie. I suppose I could have had spanakopita or baklava somewhere, but what can I say? I wanted comfort food.

Astoria is a popular alternative for Manhattanites seeking less expensive housing, and I can see why - it's vibrant and interesting, with nice parks along the river between the Triborough and Hell Gate bridges. It's also known for German-style beer gardens, and the Steinway piano factory is located there. More exploring is in order!

I saw several more movies over the last few days. (I'm going to start calling this feature "Steve's better-late-than-never movie reviews.") I finally got to "Dreamgirls," which I thought was kind of boring, frankly. The performances were excellent, with Beyonce looking amazingly Diana Ross-like and, of course, Jennifer Hudson belting out the signature song. But I've never been a big fan of that show, and I was underwhelmed. On the other hand, I loved "Blood Diamond" and "Notes on a Scandal." I thought the ending of "Blood Diamond" took an unnecessarily sentimental turn, but Leonardo di Caprio and Djimon Hounsou do great jobs. And of course Judi Dench in "Notes" is brilliant - as brittle as her character can be, we still sympathize.

It's very frustrating that studios stack up all the good movies for release at the end of the year. It turns moviegoing into a marathon. Whew!

Tuesday, January 9, 2007

Queensboro Bridge, January 2007

I took a little trip out to Queens on Sunday to explore some neighborhoods I'd never visited before, and then walked back to Manhattan over the Queensboro Bridge. The bridge connects Long Island City, in Queens, with Manhattan's Upper East Side. When the bridge passes over Roosevelt Island, there's something like a power station right next to it, and the bridge girders threw some fantastic shadows on the smokestacks. Any good Scot would be proud of that plaid!

The Queensboro Bridge is also known as the 59th Street Bridge, which, as fans of Simon & Garfunkel will know, is the locale for "The 59th Street Bridge Song," aka "Feelin' Groovy." So, yes, walking across the bridge, I did indeed sing that song to myself, as probably thousands have done before me. Not very original, but it matched my mood for the day, which was basically groovy.

I've now walked three of the four bridges connecting the east side of lower Manhattan to Long Island: the Brooklyn Bridge, the Williamsburg Bridge and the Queensboro. I've never walked over the Manhattan Bridge, which is located between the Brooklyn and Williamsburg bridges. (Are you diagramming this yet?)

Another place you may have seen the Queensboro: There's a famous scene in Woody Allen's movie "Manhattan," where he's sitting with Diane Keaton on a park bench watching the sun rise near a vast bridge. That's the Queensboro. A photo of that scene is on the movie poster.

Monday, January 8, 2007

Central Park, January 2007

The latest sculpture to temporarily grace the outdoor gallery at the southeast corner of Central Park, near the Pierre Hotel, is this one. Called "2001," by Liz Larner, it has an irridescent finish worthy of the hottest sportscar. The plaque near the sculpture says that it's Larner's attempt to blend two familiar shapes, the sphere and the cube. But I think the most interesting thing about it is the way it reflects the surrounding buildings and trees in its automotive paint job.

I saw it on Saturday when my friend Rob and I went to the park. Rob, fortunately, is very patient with me when I whip out the camera and start walking circles around some object, or pacing and crouching in front of a wall, trying to figure out the best angles and crops. At least on Saturday he didn't have to wait in the cold!

Looks kind of like a big enameled paperwad, doesn't it? Larner carefully designed the sculpture around a central point, but it's interesting that a chaotic action like wadding up a piece of paper produces a superficially similar combination of forms: cubes and spheres.

Sunday, January 7, 2007

W. 51st Street, October 2006

You can't really get a sense of the size of this big blank wall from this photo - it's about 12 stories tall. I liked the cityscape created by the shadow from nearby rooftops.

Yesterday was t-shirt weather here, if you can believe it. The high was 72 degrees. I was out walking in Central Park with my friend Rob, and it was beautiful, but also very weird. I had to keep reminding myself that it's early January, the deepest depth of winter! Supposedly this is the first year since 1878 that New York has gone this long without snow. The daffodils are coming up in the flower bed in front of my building.

I don't like it. Earth is confused.

On the bright side, my cold is much better. I feel pretty much normal, with just little twinges of sniffling. I even made it to the gym yesterday morning - a sure sign of recovery.

Saturday, January 6, 2007

E. 30th Street, Sept. 2006

This wall is just a short walk from my apartment, but it's been painted over since I took this photo - all this graffiti is long gone. The poster with the bizarre, manic rabbits is by the street artist Branded. They're very common all over the city and come in many subtly different varieties.

I finally went to see "Babel" last night. What a great movie! It's been out for weeks and weeks, so I expected to be the only one in the theater - but no, the place was packed. I was eager to see it because much of it was filmed in Morocco, and I lived in Morocco for more than two years as a Peace Corps volunteer in the early 1990s. I wanted to see how the country was depicted and listen to the Berber language again.

I must admit I didn't really hear any Berber, though it was allegedly in the film. (My Berber language skills have grown incredibly rusty, and the dialects vary from place to place - it may have been a variety very different from the one I spoke, called Tashelhait.) Most of the characters in the Morocco sequences used Arabic, which I never spoke well. But it was still great to see the landscapes and the people, and the film was a provocative exploration of cultural divisions. The themes were very similar to those in "The Sheltering Sky," by Paul Bowles, one of my favorite books.

I'd really like to get out and take some photos this weekend, if I can overcome my cold and the somewhat drizzly weather. (I think it's supposed to clear up later today.)

Friday, January 5, 2007

Hell's Kitchen, December 2006

This narrow bit of light framing the even narrower tree trunk was, well, perfect!

I'm glad that Rep. Keith Ellison, a Muslim from Michigan, stuck to his convictions and was sworn into the U.S. House of Representatives using the Koran. It's a testament to this country's diversity and religious freedom. It was especially brilliant that he used a Koran owned by Thomas Jefferson, making it clear that our more reasonable forefathers were not afraid of other faiths.

I read an article contending that Jefferson owned this Koran only to better understand "his enemies," the Barbary pirates, and that its presence in Jefferson's library was otherwise insignificant. But that both sells Jefferson short and introduces a red herring: Keith Ellison is a Muslim, but he's hardly a pirate! By which I mean that whatever disagreements we have with the Muslim world, they are not with Islam, but with individuals - some of whom are extremists arguably deviating from the Muslim path.

I am fighting a cold. It started in my throat, moved to my nose and has now settled into my chest. As Queen Victoria would say, at least in mythology: "We are not amused."

Thursday, January 4, 2007

Fashion District, October 2006

I think this art was cut from some kind of black plastic adhesive - hence the knife in the lower right. I've never seen anything quite like it. I found it on a door on Seventh Avenue, somewhere in the high 30s.

Wednesday, January 3, 2007

Times Square, October 2006

Fox & Fowle’s towering Conde Nast building opened on Times Square in 2000. Its glassy entrance reflects its older neighbor, the former Knickerbocker Hotel, across 42nd Street. The Knickerbocker, where Enrico Caruso and George M. Cohan once lived, was designed by Marvin & Davis and finished in 1905.

On my way to work yesterday, I noticed lingering traces of the New Year’s Eve festivities in Times Square. There was a sort of after-party desolation to it all. The utility trucks were still parked along Seventh Avenue, empty of promise, waiting to be rolled away. On the rooftops of the Broadway theaters, little cyclones of leftover confetti were swirling in the wind and collecting in puddles of rainwater.

Confetti leftovers were also lying dead on the subway tracks in the Times Square station. Some of those little squares, I noticed, bore the bull’s-eye trademark of Target stores. How ingenious is that marketing? Talk about finding value in clever places. (And see - it earned Target a mention in my blog!)

Got a funny piece of spam in my work e-mail. The subject line: “Don’t waste your time, have sex immediately.”

Well, OK then.

Tuesday, January 2, 2007

Litchfield, Conn., December 2006

Here we are in 2007. Yikes - how did this happen? Remember when “2001: A Space Odyssey” was set in a far-off time we had yet to reach? And now we're six years past that, already inhabiting our own distant future.

You may remember my plan to spend New Year’s Eve in Connecticut, on silent retreat with my Zen group. Well, I’m trying to figure out what to write about the experience that wouldn’t sound utterly banal. To say it was great, or calming or meaningful, or that it renewed my bonds with my fellow practitioners, just doesn’t measure up. All of those things are true, but they don’t even scratch the surface.

I never know what to expect when I practice. Sometimes I sit and all sorts of tension comes up, and that was happening when I got to the retreat on Saturday. I found myself wrestling with “shoulds” - I should sit more frequently and more effectively, I should participate more skillfully in services, I should know more about the intricacies of Zen than I do. “Shoulds” are a common plague for me. I forget to just let things be what they are, and forget the value of not knowing.

So, at a teacher’s suggestion, I just sat with that “should” feeling. Not pushing it away, but trying to breathe into it, trying to reach the deep internal part of me that holds the tightness of “should.” Siphoning it off, bit by bit.

By the next morning, after many periods of silent sitting, I felt I could literally breathe more deeply - like I’d long been filling my days with short, shallow breaths, and could finally, slowly, open myself to the air. It wasn’t just relaxation - it was an expansion, an awareness.

I brought that feeling to our New Year’s Eve celebration, which included an interesting outing, depicted in these photos. We lined up single file and silently walked to a field in a forest near our retreat center, where we held a little ceremony. We thought of things we’d like to leave behind with the turn of the year - an unskillful habit, a behavior or thought pattern lacking in mindfulness. We wrote them on slips of paper and burned them in an aluminum pan, releasing them to the air and the earth, to the past.

Then we walked back to the retreat center for some ceremonial bell-ringing and, once we could speak again, a small party. I didn’t even try to stay awake until midnight. I figured the New Year didn’t need me around to see it in - it would be there when I woke. And it was.