Friday, August 31, 2007

SoHo, August 2007

Yesterday I was in the elevator at work when a young woman got in holding a dress on a hanger, wrapped in plastic. She removed the plastic and stood looking doubtfully at the dress, a layered affair of white fabric with very subtle polka dots.

She held the dress up so I could see it. “Is this cute, or weird?”

I assured her I thought it was cute - and it was, in a weird kind of way. I laughed inwardly at the idea of being a fashion consultant for this woman I didn’t know. I thought, “I must have ‘gay man’ written all over me!”

I wonder if she would have asked Larry Craig that question?

Thursday, August 30, 2007

Fifth Avenue, August 2007

Practically speaking, if timesaving devices really saved time, there would be more time available to us now than ever before in history. But, strangely enough, we seem to have less time than even a few years ago. It's really great fun to go someplace where there are no timesaving devices because, when you do, you find that you have lots of time. Elsewhere, you're too busy working to pay for machines to save you time so you won't have to work so hard.

The main problem with this great obsession for Saving Time is very simple: You can't save time. You can only spend it. But you can spend it wisely or foolishly. The (busy person) has practically no time at all, because he's too busy wasting it by trying to save it. And by trying to save every bit of it, he ends up wasting the whole thing.

-- Benjamin Hoff, "The Tao of Pooh"

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

E. 29th Street, August 2007

The strangest thing happened Saturday morning when I went downstairs to get my newspaper.

Every day, the paper carrier just plops the paper down on the front steps outside the building. It gets stolen occasionally, but usually it’s there when I go down for it about 6:30 or 7 a.m.

On this particular day, a whole STACK of newspapers was waiting for me. The carrier, for whatever reason, dropped all the papers for my entire block on my doorstep - about 20 of them, including Sunday sections, magazines and inserts. It was not a small stack!

Why this happened, I have no idea. But since I work for a newspaper - and since fewer and fewer people still get home delivery, opting instead for the Internet or no paper at all - I decided to deliver them myself. Must keep those readers happy!

Here’s what I learned. The Catholic church across the street gets the Times and the Post. The apartment building two doors down gets a whole bunch of papers, mostly multiple copies of the Times and the Wall Street Journal. My building gets only one: mine. The Times is delivered on my block far more than any other paper.

An interesting sociological study of news delivery on East 29th Street!

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

SoHo, August 2007

I read an interesting article in The New Yorker last week about the disappearance of the dark night sky - how there are fewer and fewer places in the world where we can see the stars as people would have seen them 200 years ago.

Imagine - back then, with everyone using candlelight and oil lamps, you could probably have seen a vast array of stars and planets even from the middle of New York. Now you can see only the brightest of stars, and they look like pale specks floating in an orangey, sodium-vapor-tinted soup.

When I was a kid in Florida, we used to be able to see the Milky Way galaxy from our front yard. We looked straight up, and there it was - a wide, pale band across the sky. (I couldn’t quite figure out why anyone thought it looked like a candy bar.) Even then, though, the sky to the south, over the city of Tampa, was too bright to see stars well.

It was only in Morocco, where I lived in a village with no electricity, that I saw a truly dark sky. Not only could I see the Milky Way - I could see satellites spinning across the heavens, not to mention dozens of shooting stars. I didn’t need a telescope, either. I remember lying on my roof one night, listening to a new mix tape that my friend Kevin sent me, watching the show.

One of the few things I dislike about New York is the absence of stars. We lose something as a species when we can’t look up and be amazed. We forget that there’s no ceiling to our world, and so much more than just us.

Monday, August 27, 2007

SoHo, August 2007

Another piece of street art by one of my favorites, Bloke. I felt this way all last week - like I was flying in opposite directions, buffeted by variable winds, backtracking and zig-zagging!

Now, however, I can settle down and get back on course. I’m happy to report that both my photo session with the poet and my expedition to move the Zen center’s stuff went well. I owe a huge debt of gratitude to the guy who helped me pilot the moving truck - he did the driving (and the parking) and I basically just wound up being co-pilot, which seemed to work well for both of us. (He drives regularly and knows the roads, so that cut down on a lot of our uncertainty!) We even found a parking spot and were able to unload everything pretty quickly and effortlessly. Whew!

Often when I get stressed about things, I’m looking at them in the aggregate - I see everything I have to do looming before me as one huge entity, and I feel overwhelmed. I forget that small steps are the way to accomplish big tasks. You just do one thing and then the next, and pretty soon the big challenge is behind you. Why can’t I learn this lesson?

Have I mentioned that it’s very hard to type with a cat lying on your chest?

Saturday, August 25, 2007

Meatpacking District, August 2007

Thanks, everybody, for the words of advice and encouragement yesterday. I’m not making any immediate changes in the blog - you helped me see that I was being sabotaged by my own doubts and expectations!

I think I was just experiencing a sort of down day - a down week, really. This has been a very intense time, with changes on the job, the trip to Florida and a family illness. After this weekend I’ll be in a position to relax a little more.

I’m going back up to our retreat center in the Hudson Valley today, to help move the Zen center’s belongings (mostly dozens of meditation cushions!) back to the city. This was originally going to entail me renting a U-Haul and driving (and parking!) it in Manhattan - the source of a lot of my stress! But as it stands now, another guy in the group who drives more regularly, and who already has insurance, will probably take the wheel. I’ll just navigate.

Another member of my Zen group knows a poet who’s about to get a book published, and she recommended me to take author photos for the book jacket! So I’m going to meet the poet today. I’ve told this woman that I’m not a professional photographer, and that I only have a point-and-shoot, so I hope I’m not over-representing myself. I’ve told her I’ll do it for free. It would be cool to have a photo credit on a book jacket, wouldn’t it?

Friday, August 24, 2007

Lexington Avenue, August 2007

I’ve been at my blog now for about 15 months. During that time I’ve posted a photo and written a little something every day.

And now, I’m reaching a point of blog exhaustion. I need some advice.

As many of you know, I originally started this blog to show off my photos. But that purpose seems to have diminished as I’ve come to use Flickr, which is really more suited to photo display.

Over time, I began writing a little more each day to go with the photos. But for me, the writing has never been very satisfying. I love to write, so I’ve often wondered why I don’t feel more fulfilled by it here. I think there are a couple of reasons.

I’ve never felt free to really open up about a lot of stuff. I don’t particularly like writing about my love life (such as it is) or any deeply personal issues, given that this IS the Internet, and God knows where it will wind up. And I can’t discuss a wide range of political and social issues, given that I’m a journalist and airing my political opinions is expressly forbidden by my employer.

Last night, for example, I went to see “Sicko,” Michael Moore’s latest film. But I can’t really tell you much about my reactions to the film or the issues, because doing so would compromise the objectivity I have to publicly cultivate. (I also can't do stuff like sign petitions or march in demonstrations.)

So what I’m left with is a kind of tepid, limited blog. And I guess it’s seeming like more of a burden than a joy. I often find myself forced to just come up with SOMETHING to post, and that’s not a feeling I want to have. It also takes a lot of time, and I’m unable to keep up with reading and other stuff that matters to me.

What should I do? Stop blogging? Blog less frequently? What do the rest of you do when you’re tired of your blog?

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Lexington Avenue, August 2007

We must be having sunspots this week.

My travails continued yesterday, when one of my office computers contracted a virus (along with much of the rest of the network) and the other, a temporary replacement for a machine with a dead motherboard, stubbornly refused to print or view e-mail. It was like trying to work with one hand tied behind my back and the other arm in a cast.

Last night I watched “Salem’s Lot,” the fairly dreadful ‘70s TV movie based on the Stephen King novel. Maybe because of my work computers, I kept getting distracted thinking about the time period -- no Internet, no cell phones, no “connectivity” or “social networking.” Being something of a Luddite anyway, I was downright nostalgic for the ‘70s.

(Not for the hair, though.)

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

West Side Highway, August 2007

Do you ever have one of those mornings when everything seems to conspire against you?

That was me, yesterday. I had so much to do after my trip - I’d gotten home late the night before - and it seemed I was stymied at every turn.

Before I could even make coffee I had to stumble to the store to get milk. Then I settled in with my blog and Flickr, spent a little too much time and wound up running late. But I was committed to going to the gym, so I hustled myself over there, only to find it “closed indefinitely,” according to a sign on the door. (I still don’t know the full story, but I’m guessing it had something to do with the recent flooding during the heavy rain.)

I gave up the gym, got myself home and got dressed, and then had to go pick up my cat from the vet. By this time it was POURING rain, and I didn’t have an umbrella - they were all at work. So I had to go back to the store and buy an umbrella, then pick up Armenia’s cat carrier and go to the vet. We walked home in the rain, which of course annoyed Armenia because rain came in the little holes of the carrier and dampened her butt. She was leaping around in the carrier trying to avoid the water.

Then I had to take my laundry to the cleaners and make my way to work. It was still pouring. My shoes and socks got soaking wet. Argh! Welcome back to reality!

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Meatpacking District, August 2007

Back again in New York, on a morning so chilly I need a jacket. A drastic change from blistering, sun-baked Florida!

The family visit went really well. I spent a couple of days with my Mom and a couple with my Dad and stepmother. The time with my Dad was especially educational.

My brother and I lived with my Mom while growing up, and though we saw my Dad every week, we didn’t have the same exposure to his family that we had to my Mom’s. So I really never knew much about my Dad’s people, who lived in California. I got cards from them on birthdays and at Christmas, but that was about it. This weekend I finally got a chance to collect some information about that side of the family.

Both my Dad’s parents were originally from Arkansas farm families. My great-grandfather, Enoch Reed, was born in 1866 and lived to be about 100 in their hometown of Imboden. I got a copy of an interesting newspaper article written by the local Social Security representative after he came to sign up Enoch and his wife, Mary, for Medicare. Apparently he was so impressed with their endurance and longevity that he wrote about their spartan farm lifestyle, with chickens in the yard and a patch of corn that Enoch hoed by hand.

Neither of my grandparents, Jesse Harvard Reed and Ella Augusta Ratliff, graduated from high school. That wasn’t unusual in that time and place; they both had farm work to do. In the 1930s, my grandfather made his way into a job as a mail carrier for the postal service -- a great job to have in the Depression -- and that took him and his family to California. He died there in 1963 before I was born. My grandmother lived until the early ‘90s; we did visit her once, when I was 16, in 1983.

We read letters from my grandparents to my father, and both of them were excellent writers. (Better than a lot of people who graduate from college now!) It was so amazing to hear their voices through their writing. My grandfather seemed to have the same dry sense of humor as my Dad.

It was cool to gather all this history and learn about this branch of my family -- different from my Mom’s branch, where people had the opportunity to go to college. (Some of them were Southern farmers, too, though, just a few generations back.)

I don’t know why I never had these conversations before. Why on earth did we wait until now?

Saturday, August 18, 2007

Back in a few days

I'm in Florida now, but I'm finding it really hard to blog from here - my family has an absurdly slow Internet connection. (You wouldn't believe how long it's taking to post even this quick note.) So I'll pick this up again on Tuesday when I get back to New York!

Thursday, August 16, 2007

SoHo, August 2007

The online magazine Slate said Tuesday that this column from The New York Times may be the “worst op-ed ever written.”


The worst ever?

When I first read it, I thought it was sort of charming and curmudgeonly, if entirely predictable. It’s all been said before, that’s true. Jokes about triple-skim no-foam lattes are so ‘90s.

But the worst ever?

I’ve been taught in recent years that a good guideline is to avoid superlatives. Don’t say something is the best, or the first, or the only. Doing so invites contention, and this is a perfect example. If you say something is the worst, well, it really better be -- and this isn’t.

On a totally different subject, I did see “The Simpsons Movie” last night. I’m happy to report that it’s hilarious, just as one would expect. What made it even funnier for me were the two gawky teenagers sitting in an adjacent row. They were 15 or so, one with braces and a skateboard and the other with the funniest, most indescribable laugh. Every time he laughed, I laughed at his laugh. It was contagious!

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

SoHo, August 2007

Going away on a trip is surprisingly complicated, even for a few days. Stop the mail, stop the paper, take the cat to the vet (yes, she's going to be boarded), finish everything at work. Basically, that's going to be my day.

My challenge will be to retain some degree of mindfulness about each thing I do, rather than rushing through it all with only the end goal in sight.

Saw a movie last night in the theater, which I haven't done in weeks: "Broken English," starring Parker Posey, who's one of my favorites. She plays a neurotic and not entirely likeable woman with serious relationship issues and fears, who must confront them when she begins a romance with a young French guy. Parker gets to really work it as an actress. The other day, Merle was lamenting the lack of movies for adults -- they are out there, but I find that they're often small, obscure movies like this. (And having said that, I am really looking forward to seeing "The Simpsons Movie"!)

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Long Island City, Queens, July 2007

I thought this was an interesting house -- elegantly ornate and shabby at the same time!

I’m going to Florida on Thursday for a quick visit with the family. I’m not sure what my blogging status will be during that time -- we’ll have to play it by ear.

I’m also not sure what to do with my cat. I’ll be gone five days, which is just a little too long to leave her alone. But at the same time, I hate to board her at the vet, which involves a lot of stress on her part. I may ask someone in the building to watch her, if I can think of someone to trust with my house keys!

Last night I watched “Dark Victory” with Bette Davis (whose name I habitually mistype as “Better”). Very tragic, melodramatic and glamorous. Those old black & white films really had an incredible photographic beauty. In one scene, Bette wore a sequined cap, and the light flashing off the sequins created an amazing effect. Watching “Knocked Up” just isn’t the same!

Monday, August 13, 2007

Chelsea, August 2007

As I’ve said before, it’s very hard to type with a cat lying on your chest.

Yesterday I went back up to Cornwall-on-Hudson, site of my recent Buddhist retreat, to participate in another ceremony with the folks from my Zen center. (They’re all still up there, in revolving groups, through the end of the month.) On Sunday they held a ceremony called Jukai, which is when a person officially takes the vows to uphold Buddhism’s central “precepts,” or guidelines for living. (Some people characterize the ceremony as the point at which one “becomes a Buddhist,” though that seems a little trite!)

I took Jukai two years ago. It’s a fascinating experience. We studied the precepts for several months prior, and we also sewed a ceremonial garment called a rakusu, which we hang around our necks when we wear robes. The rakusu is a representation of Buddha’s robe. It is jokingly known as the “lobster bib.”

These are the guidelines we vow to uphold:

1. Not killing
2. Not stealing
3. Not misusing sex
4. Not lying
5. Not giving or taking drugs
6. Not discussing faults of others
7. Not praising yourself while abusing others
8. Not sparing the Dharma assets (being generous)
9. Not indulging in anger
10. Not defaming the three treasures (Buddha, Dharma and Sangha)

These are guidelines, as opposed to rules like the Ten Commandments, and people’s adherence varies. For example, I drink coffee and the occasional glass of wine, both actions that could be said to violate #5. I’ve been known to kill a mosquito. And these seemingly simple ideas can be amazingly complex -- is there a metaphorical way to “kill” someone, for example? By not listening, by disregarding their needs? Inherent in the precepts is an appreciation of their fluidity, and the fluidity of life and circumstance.

Anyway, back to the jukai ceremony: The best part is when those taking vows stand up above the rest of the group and the sangha walks around them, bowing. It’s very moving. This is also the day on which those taking the vow get a “Dharma name,” presented by Roshi and based on some aspect of their personality. (Mine is “Junryu,” which means “flow with the river.”)

And now I have to flow to work because I am late!

Sunday, August 12, 2007

Chelsea, August 2007

Our sudden chilly weather produced a beautiful day yesterday, so I went on a photo expedition to a very productive area in Chelsea, where I found tons of great street art and took lots of photos. I augmented that with brunch at The Dish on Eighth Avenue, one of the gayest restaurants in the gayest neighborhoods in NYC. I chowed down on buckwheat pancakes and finished “Buddha or Bust,” and of course kept an eye on all the guys.

Last night I watched “High Noon,” with Gary Cooper. What a terrific movie! Very fast-paced and easy to watch. I love an old Western, and this one features Grace Kelly (a very unlikely casting choice for a Western) and an alluring actress named Katy Jurado, who brought a kind of haughty brilliance to her role as Cooper's Mexican ex. It was a bit sobering to realize that almost everyone in “High Noon,” made in 1952, is dead now.

Saturday, August 11, 2007

W. 36th Street, August 2007

While the South swelters in unnaturally hot temperatures, we’re having a cold snap, if you can believe it. Yesterday it rained and rained, and when the storms finally passed it was in the high 50s! It’s very strange to have the temperature drop 40 degrees in a single day.

I went out with my friend Jan last night to the South Street Seaport and then to the Ritz Carlton at Battery Park, which we’d been told had a bar with a great view. The Seaport area is a little too much like a big mall for my taste -- Gap, Abercrombie & Fitch, etc. -- but we did find a nice wine bar called Bin 220 and had some excellent cheese and red wine. Then we went to the Ritz and found the bar depressingly bland, like the food -- but the view was killer. We watched fireworks over the Statue of Liberty. Not sure whose fireworks or why, but they were a fun surprise.

I finally had my day in court yesterday. You may remember that as president of my co-op, I had to testify in a case related to my apartment building. I’d never testified in court before, but it went very smoothly. Examination, cross-examination, witness box, judge in black robe - just like the movies.

Friday, August 10, 2007

Madison Avenue, August 2007

Yesterday I got out my camera again, after not touching it for nearly two weeks. I took it to work and snapped this photo on the way. It was one of those serendipitous shots where I held the camera up and had a great photo almost immediately. LOVE it when that happens.

I'm reading an entertaining book called "Buddha or Bust," by Perry Garfinkel, in which he traces the spread of Buddhism around the world with visits to countries as diverse as India, Poland and Japan. It began as an assignment for National Geographic and Garfinkel expanded it into a book. I'm loving his easy writing style and the subject matter, more focused on cultures and people than a scholarly history of the Buddhist diaspora. A recommended fun read!

Thursday, August 9, 2007

W. 40th Street, June 2007

I did try to go to the gym yesterday morning, but when I got there they said the weight room had been flooded by the heavy rains and was closed. That should have been my first indication that this was no ordinary storm.

As I walked to work a little later, I saw hordes of people waiting at bus stops. I overheard one man say into a cell phone that the buses weren't running - but I think he was asking a question, because it turns out that the subways were out, not the buses. Apparently all the rainwater flooded the subway lines. Mass chaos! Pedestrian overload!

My boss, who lives in Brooklyn, couldn't even get to work. And there was also a tornado, which caused some damage in another Brooklyn neighborhood. An eventful Wednesday!

I'm going to try to tackle the gym again this morning. Hope they got out the Wet-Vac.

Wednesday, August 8, 2007

East Village, July 2007

We’re having quite the rain-and-lightning display this morning. My cat keeps looking at the bright flashes in the window, followed by resonant booming thunder, with great concern. She’s lying on my chest, probably under the illusion that I could protect her from it all.

I was going to go to the gym this morning, but I woke up later than usual and now we’ve got this rain, so I may blow it off. I’ve had a little trouble getting back on schedule after my retreat. I got about four hours of sleep the night before last, and felt like a zombie all day yesterday. Fortunately, last night I made up for it by sleeping nine hours!

Tuesday, August 7, 2007

Cornwall-on-Hudson, New York, July 2006

Know that in this way there are myriads of forms and hundreds of grasses throughout the entire earth, and yet each grass and each form itself is the entire earth. The study of this is the beginning of practice.

When you are at this place, there is just one grass, there is just one form; there is understanding of form and no-understanding of form; there is understanding of grass and no-understanding of grass. Since there is nothing but just this moment, the time-being is all the time there is. Grass-being, form-being are both time.

Each moment is all being, is the entire world. Reflect now whether any being or any world is left out of the present moment.

-- from “Uji - The Time Being,” by Dogen Zenji, translated by Kazuaki Tanahashi

Uji, a collection of writings on time and existence by the Zen master Dogen, was the study text for my recent Buddhist retreat. Each day we would take it out and read a few passages aloud while on the cushion, and consider its meaning. Roshi and the senior students gave one talk each day that touched on Uji.

It’s a complicated document, and I can’t begin to really understand it, but Dogen essentially contends that objects and beings are time. I take that to mean the physical manifestations of time, both past and future. One teacher, for example, talked about her genetics as the product of ancestors going back thousands of years - all that time leading up to the present moment and her own existence. I watched a rabbit on the lawn, and thought the same thing: All those thousands of years of rabbits that came before it, trickling down to the present and this one rabbit.

I’m not sure that’s how Dogen meant it, but that’s how it makes the most sense to me. Anyway, I especially liked the passage above.

Monday, August 6, 2007

Cornwall-on-Hudson, New York, July 2006

Well, I’ve returned from my retreat, a few pounds lighter and somewhat light-headed. It was, in a word, interesting. Challenging. Definitely not fun.

People often think going on a Zen retreat is like going to a spa. They think you ought to come back all refreshed and glowing, having done lots of yoga and restful contemplation.

It’s nothing like that. A fellow retreat-goer described it yesterday as “controlled insanity,” and that’s about as apt a description as I could come up with. For me, it was about meeting my own mind in its darkest places, seeing my desires, my thought patterns, the ways I try to fake myself out. It was sometimes downright grueling.

We got up at 4:20 every morning and basically sat zazen all day, interspersed with services and ritual meals served traditional oriyoki style - “just enough” food in three small bowls. (Delicious food, by the way.) We were in bed by 9:30 every night. We also had an exercise period, a work period and time for a midday nap.

No reading. No TV, movies, telephones, computers. No escape, in other words. We had a couple of musicians in the group who played for us during a few rare periods of zazen. But mostly, it was just me and myself, facing off across a divide of silence broken only by birdsong and the white-noise sound of the blowing fans.

It was interesting to watch my own practice through the week. When the retreat started, I was all into it, enjoying the quiet, the order and the mindfulness. I could watch the sun on the grass and hear the wind in the trees and really delve into those experiences. My cushion was near an open window, and I often saw wildlife outside the meditation hall: deer, a family of turkeys, a hummingbird, rabbits, a lightning-fast chipmunk.

But extensive meditation is not all pretty. After about six days, I was struggling to retain focus and rebelling inwardly against the same order I’d loved just a few days earlier. My mind was screaming to be released, to pursue its little distractions and habits. It was sending me all sorts of alarm signals: “You’re not getting enough food! You’re going to die here! These people are all crazy! You have to get OUT!”

I also got increasingly irritable. Giving up control, or the illusion of control, was hard and I was grumbly from time to time. (Thankfully it was a silent retreat, so my grumbling was internal!)

And then, of course, the retreat ended and I learned that others were dealing with those same feelings -- the frustration, the annoyances, the challenges of meeting your darkest self. “Controlled insanity,” indeed.

This was the first full 10-day retreat I've done. Would I do it again? If you’d asked me on Friday, I would have said, “Heck no!” But now, from a position of safety in my normal daily routines, I see that all my mind’s empty threats and fears were for naught. I could imagine going again. I certainly learned from it.

Still, it’s good to be home!

I did not take my camera on retreat, so these photos are from the same retreat period last year. I’ve been so attached to the camera in recent months that I thought it was important to get away from it for a while!