this world in which we live

Rather than attempt any written response to the events and aftermath unfolding from the dark day in Connecticut, I’m choosing instead to share a few new finds on the order of the art in children’s books and the worlds they open up — it is where I’m choosing to dwell for a spell.

More information here: Little Big Books: What Makes Great Children’s Picture Book Illustration
including these illustrations


and for those of us who want to know more: A Brief History of Children’s Picture Books and the Art of Visual Storytelling

all links here courtesy of BrainPickings – follow: @brainpicker

Another pocket

In the mid to late 1800s, Felix Nadar, a French photographer, experimented with and pioneered the use of artificial lighting in photography. Nadar was the pseudonym of Gaspard-Félix Tournachon, born in the 19th century and died in the early 20th century; both birth and death were witnessed by City of Lights where Nadar was also buried, in the Pére Lachaise Cemetery. Not quite as impressive as the recently deceased woman who “lived in three centuries,” but what he lacked in temporality he made up for in technical achievement and inspiration.

Below are a few of Nadar’s portraits that especially captivated me, in large part because in some instances I had concocted completely different images in my mind (eg., Manet) and in other instances, I realized that I had never bothered to imagine a visage for said person (e.g., Rodin). And the ones that render me speechless (e.g., Bernhardt). The portraits evoke in me a deep sense of gratitude for the basic notions of light and dark, and caught in the spaces in between is the very essence of the camera obscura out of which the camera as we know it now was first born; wherein:

“The dark, far from representing a total absence, remains in our photographs like information at rest.”—Cia de Foto (h/t @_firescript)

Claude Debussy, ca. 1908


Alexandre Dumas, 1855
Edouard Manet, ca. 1870

Sarah Bernhardt, 1865

For a more complete look at Nadar’s photographic works around the world, goto Felix Nadar Online.

In the aftermath

A friend texted me to say that the images coming out of New York City in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy look like they belong in a disaster film. I couldn’t agree more. Despite the howling winds on Monday night, my neighbors and I came through the storm relatively unscathed, all of us harboring more than a bit of survivor’s guilt as the stories and photographs of the otherwise bright city shrouded in darkness stream across all of our media. The lights were finally turned on in lower Manhattan on Friday night. The photos in the slideshow below were taken on Thursday, just as dusk began to dissolve into evening; I had attempted to meet a friend in the Lower East Side to help with food packaging and redistribution for nearby residents who had been without power or electricity for nearly four days. Using my feet, slowly running subway, and bus, I made it as far as 20th and FDR before realizing that without a flashlight or other light source, continuing on would not be a prudent decision. Before making the trek back home, I snapped a few pics with my phone. In a few instances, I lightened the image to allow some of the background to come through that had been almost entirely obscured by the thick curtain of darkness; the sheer absence of light, of sound, of humans in this normally densely populated part of town was purely suffocating. I allowed myself a few minutes to indulge in this moment, to take in my environs via camera as well as sensorily, before releasing the awe that threatened to settle in — I wondered, then, of what value is awe (at nature, above all else) in a time like this? In a time when awe is better channeled into cleaning debris from parks, from streets, from neighborhoods, much of which is happening throughout the city in demonstrations of humanity and connectedness.

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And from the NYTimes: Glimmers of light in a darkened city


I admit it. When I first saw the email telling me that our university, like so many other institutions on the eastern seaboard, was closed, I experienced a distinct burst of giddiness. A day “off” is the thought I dared to allow out of my subconscious mind onto the stage of discernable thought. I awoke to little more than thick, cloudy, tannish grey skies and a wet mist that quickly grew into a steady drizzle. I ventured out to our local market — the corner bodega, for you city folk — to pick up some coffee, taking a few snaps along the way but I returned with little more to show for my adventure than a damp sweatshirt and an ample supply of caffeine. I optimistically set out to accomplish a herculean number of tasks. After all, we were “off.”

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Seven hours passed by in a swirl of phone meetings, email catch up, and some writing – not the kind I was aiming to do, but of the kind I needed to do… after the tinny sounds of raindrops falling against the air conditioner swelled into a single, agitated noise… I made an empty-the-fridge frittata, use-up-the-fruit crostata, and made decent headway with the consumption of assorted sweets and treats under the convenient guise of preparing for possible power outage by minimizing food waste… all the while, the anxious weight of the word “yet” hung in the air as I, like the rest of the city, awaited the mythic winds that would prove to be even more harrowing than the “Frankenstorm,” as the popular press has taken to calling Hurricane Sandy, of 1938 – the last time a hurricane that even approached the current conditions. From the Slate story:

Without warning, a powerful Category 3 hurricane slams into Long Island and southern New England, causing 600 deaths and devastating coastal cities and towns. Also called the Long Island Express, the Great New England Hurricane of 1938 was the most destructive storm to strike the region in the 20th century.

At present, we are in the thick of Sandy’s turbulent fury. Outside, the wind screams as if in pain, a protestation of a sinful sort. Mine is an interior apartment, my windows have unremarkable views, which today provides an additional layer of protection against the churning squalls. I offer a note of thanks.

It is impossible to do anything but be in this storm. By being, I mean following along on twitter and occasionally on facebook, via text and email to my siblings and spouse, and becoming unavoidably transfixed by links to images and video that are flooding my twitterstream of rising water and submerged NYC iconography, sparking wires and resultant fires, of building facades turning to dust. And this is what the wind map of the United States looks like at present.

Another inappropriate thought: How beautiful… like a painstakingly hand-drawn etching of this world rather than the otherworldly chaotic havoc that it signals.

Whatever sense of wonder I was lost in, I was wrested violently from its comfort by the sounds of sirens, honking cars, metal clanging as if something was tumbling down the length of fire escape, a phone ringing relentlessly next door… Neighbors’ voices and the opening and shutting of doors interrupt the windswept operetta continuing ad nauseam on the other side of surprisingly dense window glass.

Like many of our counterparts, our university is closed again tomorrow, as is the NYC transit system, city public schools, and apparently everything south of 23rd street – which has receded into darkness unwittingly. My giddiness has dissolved into a state of anticipation tinged with irritation, still somewhat laced with wonder but not free from unease that settles in when a situation remains unsettled.

Waiting … for the impending aftermath… for power outage… for the unpredictable…

Metal clanging again, more loudly this time. Wind makes its presence known, lest we attempt to retreat into our dreams to forget whatever nightmare may await us in the light of day. Wind and water, a lesson in humility…

Is it somehow fitting, then, that Neruda found his way into my reading today?

Ode To Enchanted Light
by Pablo Neruda

Under the trees light
has dropped from the top of the sky,
like a green
latticework of branches,
on every leaf,
drifting down like clean
white sand.

A cicada sends
its sawing song
high into the empty air.

The world is
a glass overflowing
with water.

in honor of centenarians


“Another year closer to death!” some comically cruel cards remind the recipient.

A way to mark the passing of time.

An excuse to gather with friends, family, and loved ones; take time for a nice meal or hike or visit to the spa; be kind to oneself; be kind to others.

A Jehovah’s witness would take no notice at all. An American president receives a card electronically signed by millions of his nation’s residents.

There may be cake or ice cream or both, as has become custom for kids and the kid-at-heart population here in the States and in many countries worldwide.

A childhood neighbor of ours, who was of Russian descent, once told me about a special bottle of vodka he was expecting in honor of his birthday.

I suspect being born on February 29th would pose a bit of a challenge.

In Vietnam, everyone’s birth is celebrated on New Year’s Day, a day called Tet. Only newborns are given a celebration on the actual day of their birth.

My grandfather would have turned 100 today. I mentioned his birthday a few weeks ago, ironically enough in a post that was published on my grandmother’s birthday.

Had he been alive, we might have sent in his name to The Today Show on which centenarians are given a birthday greeting by the rapidly aging Willard Scott.

If he was a British resident upon his centenary, he would have received a customized message from Her Majesty, the Queen.

I occasionally wonder what he would have made of this world in which we live, now. In the past three and half decades since his passing, nothing of the world he knew at the time of his death has remained. His family has migrated to distant lands, the country of his birth is, in some ways, unrecognizable (although the village of his birth, seen below, looks remarkably untouched — save the motorcycles casually parked along the side), and from I have been told about his demeanor, he might have had a difficult time understanding a society in which celebrity haircuts are front page news while wartime chicanery with fatal consequences is buried deep within the fold. And what explanation would he offer in making sense of a nation with more than a billion residents that is consistently among the lowest medal earners in the Olympic games; perhaps he might have said that he and his countrymen spent their time pondering other matters and would have elegantly evaded the question with a question of his own… clever bugger.

Birthday greetings, dear young man.

Perinkulam, Palghat


650. That, according to Jordan Weissman, a writer for The Atlantic, who extrapolated the number from claims about workers’ productivity issued by McKinsey Global Institute, is the number of hours the average “working stiff” spends on email at work. His calculations are as follows:

“we spend 13 hours a week, or 28 percent of our office time, on email. Assuming two weeks vacation, that multiplies out to 650 hours a year.”

Nevermind the obvious “buts” that undoubtedly come to mind — 13 hours out of how many? The last time my work week was 40 hours — HA! Who gets two weeks vacation? But I email on vacation! — and consider the following math:

An average year has 8760 hours (or, as the musical Rent has drilled into my mind, “525, 600 miiiinnutes!”) — and a leap year, such as the current one, has 24 hours more. The figure of 650 hours, then, or roughly 7%, doesn’t seem quite as egregious as perhaps it’s meant to be. And frankly, I think the approximation of 650 hours per year, which is less than two hours a day, might be a low estimate…for some people…

After all, email needn’t mean the drudgery of replying to inane requests for the same document, statistic, or reference you’ve already sent along at least ten times. But perhaps it can’t be helped, and perhaps that’s why many of us have multiple email accounts — to perpetuate the illusion that we are entirely different people when we check the gmail account versus the .edu one; that the mindful and present person we can be with the former is all but a ghost when we click open the latter…

What is more appalling, however, is the nonchalant recommendation that concludes Weissman’s article:

“McKinsey suggests that by moving to social media-based information platforms — think some of the more recent versions of Microsoft Sharepoint — would make workers 25 percent more productive. True?”

False! My guess is that the average person working within an institution, be it for/non/or anti-profit, has to communicate with a bevy of others — you know the ones: the humorless, the martyrs, the overly performative types — with whom a generic status update or tweet such as “Skpg mtg. Kthxbye!” just wouldn’t feel right. (And now I’m imagining various members of our institutional administration huddled together around someone’s tablet, smartphone, or laptop as they try to decipher that…)

Nor would it “increase productivity” — another much-loathed phrase — because people would be increasingly running around, even more so than now, fretting over the very mechanism that intends to simplify. People already become stressed when composing messages to an audience of one or a few. Dare we imagine the social paralysis that may descend upon the masses if everything was deemed to be necessarily public?! (…even though a very tiny part of me suspects that private is merely an artifact of nostalgia, alive in our memories alone…)

So, to recap:
Less time spent on inane emails that say the same thing 25 times over? Yes!
Imposed socially mediated communication for the sake of some false sense of productivity? Um, maybe not quite.


“And when he died, I suddenly realized I wasn’t crying for him at all, but for all the things he did.”

Those words, from Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, were tweeted and retweeted with great frequency in the past 48 hours. These prescient words offer an unlikely form of comfort as they suggest both acceptance and reflection. I will make a confession now: it didn’t occur to me that Ray Bradbury was still alive, so when the news of his death first flashed on my twitter feed my immediate thoughts turned to the impending public response. The quantity of tweets and chirps that filled the communicative airwaves after the passing of poet and author Adrienne Rich in late March pales in comparison to the voluminous outpouring of tributes and reflections that have consumed the various social media spaces in honor of Bradbury, who was 91 when he died. And in the wake of his death, the musings and sharings of others have provided incredible insights into the man. Take, for example, this letter the author wrote relatively recently in support of libraries in which he describes the impact of being surrounded by shelves of books:

“How could I have written so many words so quickly? It was because of the library. All of my friends, all of my loved ones, were on the shelves above and shouted, yelled and shrieked at me to be creative.”

Incidentally, a large collection of letters, written by Bradbury as well as other persons of interest, can be found on the Letters of Note website.

I keep returning, however, to Bradbury’s words that begin this post. Certainly tears are shed at someone’s passing, but what do our emotions actually signify? If we know — or are at least in some way aware — that each of us is just passing through, as it were, why and how is it that we form such deep attachments? Like the wise author writes, we seem to form attachments for “all the things” people do. Stranger yet are the deeply formed attachments we make to veritable strangers who, because of their words, do not remain strangers for very long. How is it, like many have said about the likes of Sebald and others, that an intimacy is evoked simply through the act of reading? Not merely the sort of intimacy akin to routine and familiarity, such as we might experience with the person who checks us in at the gym or the ever-present barista at the local coffee shop; I am referring instead to the kinship that is nurtured between a reader and a writer even when the actual distance, both spatial and temporal as well as social and cultural, is vast. At moments of death (and, by extension, a recognition of our own mortality), do we mourn the end of what might yet have come into being at the writer’s hand?

Perhaps we are moved to remember how it is that we encountered these intimate strangers in the first place. Who are these authors who come to live inside of us and whose penned and typed words take shape in the form of our thoughts and questions, and whose views of the world intersect, challenge, and comfort our own? Of course, this is not only true of writers but also of others who creations — paintings, films, the city landscape of buildings, and more — are absorbed into our beings; we are because they made. … thus, moving us to make, create, question, live differently.

Emerson wrote that “every end is a beginning”*, an assertion that is shown to be especially true in the socially mediated world in which we live and communicate. Following Rich’s death, for instance, I engaged in an exchange with a friend via twitter about the ways in which her words are effecting and how her death is even more so; in the space of our exchange was the additional comfort that comes from recognizing familiar glimpses in another. The various spheres and universes of communication were filled with people sharing favorite quotes, passages, and memories that predictably led to me increasing my “must read” list. Similarly, with Bradbury — and perhaps more so — I have delighted in learning more about who he was in the eyes of others, the larger extent of his writings and genres (including letters to various parties), and the many forms his influence took across nine decades of life. (These nonagenarians are putting the rest of us to shame!) A few of these literary treasures are included here:


And now I will correct my earlier confession — it’s not quite precise that I didn’t realize Ray B. was still alive; in truth, I am merely trying to “wrap my head around”, as Joseph McCabe from FearNet describes, “a world where Ray Bradbury no longer lives.”

*The phrase is part of a longer quote from Emerson’s essay “Circles“: “Our life is an apprenticeship to the truth that around every circle another can be drawn; that there is no end in nature, but every end is a beginning; that there is always another dawn risen on mid-noon, and under every deep a lower deep opens.”

stories we find amidst intersecting worlds

Each day, if we bother to listen, the world stands at the ready to teach us something. Yesterday, while attending one of the numerous and if not state-sanctioned then certainly state-encouraged diamond jubilee street parties, I had occasion to glean a bit of insight about the ever-imbricated relationship between England and the United States. I was a guest of my friend A — you’ll remember, the one who is a crafting wiz, who inspired me to try cooking enough food on one day for a month of meals (although I only ended up cooking enough for a week – I don’t know if that means I eat too much or if I cooked too little…), and an endless source of laughter and wisdom in all forms — and unlike A and family, I was not given a blue sticker to wear. The guests, you see, wore red stickers. So we could be easily identified and booted, perhaps? I doubt it would come to that — everyone was not only very nice (and a few were more than a bit sauced) but they were full of tales and musings about the street, about the street party — “there hasn’t been one in the 48 years I’ve lived here!” exclaimed an enthusiastic woman unflinchingly wearing a tiara — and about the jubilee overall. Children had their faces painted, a steady stream of musically inclined neighbors took to the microphone to croon some tunes, plastic stemware and open bottles of wine and other means of imbibing were featured prominently along the long line of tables, and the bunting. Oh there was bunting hung with care, as far as the eye could see. Triangular Union Jack flags hung from plastic twine along the fronts of houses, overhead like streamers, and decorated the eating areas and more than a few women’s skirts and men’s shirts.

When the hour struck just past six in the evening, everyone began to stand at the behest of the already-standing who flapped their arms enthusiastically upward. So we stood and from the musical end of the street streamed a familiar tune. I was moved to stand a bit straighter and words started to come out of my mouth. What I was unwittingly singing, as was A, were the words to a song that children in the States are taught in school known as “My Country ‘Tis of Thee.” But why would they be playing that in this near-London town? Everyone around us, it turns out, was singing different words and so A and I kept our voices quiet as we kept singing. The tune of the American patriotic anthem is the same as the British national anthem “God save the Queen.” How this fact either escaped me all these years or failed to materialize in my memory as a known fact, I’m not sure. But I didn’t fret and instead enjoyed this quietly transgressive, oddly historicized moment in which a song can hold such a multitude of meanings. It was a light moment, a celebratory one … and yet, with the fates and acts of world’s humans not too far from the collective consciousness, I couldn’t help but acknowledge, however momentarily, John Berger’s implied admonition “A singer may be innocent; never the song.”

In that moment, however, I chose to stay present and revel in the delightfully (and more than few ghoulishly) painted faces, the neighbors being neighborly, and the consuming of foods and tunes. As an outsider — and particularly as the Jubilee festivities and commentaries about the festivities are going on — the oft-cited notion that at some point in human history the sun never set on the British empire is one that isn’t too far from the front of my mind. More than a few of the news presenters commenting on the Jubilee throughout the day’s televised coverage implicitly referred to the complicated relationship of England with the rest of the world throughout the years, of the tension involving such displays of extravagance at a time of relative worldwide austerity, of the long history of public perceptions and commentary about the presiding Queen. The overwhelming visual scene, however, was one of masses of people simply enjoying themselves.

Earlier today, my travel companion, who was particularly eager to take in the pageantry, and I wandered down to the Thames. Clearly we did not arrive early enough to secure a coveted viewing spot and after attempting to see something — anything! — near Waterloo Bridge, we made our way to Blackfriar’s Bridge, closer to the end of the day’s flotilla. That’s right, I said flotilla (and I will likely say it again).  Although I jokingly noted that the thousand strong fleet of seaworthy vessels making their way down a seven-mile stretch of the Thames River had been organized in honor of A’s arrival and, coincidentally, birthday, today’s flotilla is actually a long-standing royal tradition reminiscent of this painting by Canaletto depicting the boat-filled Thames on Lord Mayor’s Day (circa 1747).

Canaletto’s “London: The Thames on Lord Mayor’s Day”

In a post that has not yet made it out of the drafts stage, I started to talk about traveling and seeing new places with familiar faces. As happy as I am for A and family to experience the many riches this city and country have to offer, I am especially overjoyed to have a small chance to overlap with their time here and to see again and anew what has started to become slightly familiar; and at the same time, to relax into the comfort that comes with shared prior experiences, conversations, and affiliations.

One of A’s new neighbors who was sure to introduce himself to us, perhaps because we were outed as “new” and therefore “different,” was particularly keen on making it known to us that where A had taken up temporary residence was a “very good neighborhood” and good place to live, safe for families, a place without worry. I thought again about his earnest pitch while walking as one among the purported 1.2 million revelers on the London city streets and couldn’t help but think about all the moments in which we humans are constantly trying to find audiences for our stories and for the chance to get the stories across in just the right way. What are the stories to glean, then, from these snaps taken in town today — I offer them here sans captions:

happy birthday, a! 🙂

in other words, stop sitting so much

As if in a mystically orchestrated cosmic response to the Slate article on (lack of) walking, The Atlantic Monthly has published a short piece describing an Australian study that reaffirms the findings of many other studies that have come before it: sitting too much is bad for you. Or, as the title of the article states plainly: Confirmed: He Who Sits the Most Dies the Soonest.

A few choice excerpts from the piece:

It is now well accepted that too much sitting is unhealthy. Studies in the last few years have found that death risks rise when people watch spend more leisure time in front of a computer screen or TV or simply sit too much.

In other words, people still need to exercise, but it’s also important to spend less time sitting.

And of the new study of more than 200,000 Australians the author notes:

Its most striking finding was that people who sat more than 11 hours a day had a 40% higher risk of dying in the next three years than people who sat less than four hours a day.

Sure, the critically skeptical reader might argue, as some of the commenters have, that the protocol was flawed, that there was not enough consideration made for the small amounts of walking one might within one’s own home, and so on. But perhaps this is missing the larger point. If we find ourselves sitting consistently for more than eleven hours a day, should we be worried? All of these studies are premised in large part on the implicit notion that all humans have a desire to live as long as possible. That, too, may not necessarily be true for everyone.

(warning: unintentional riff on mortality starts here)

During my travels last summer, I watched an Australian television program about a tribe in South America whose members lived a life largely removed from what most of us are familiar with as an image of society. Their average lifespan was little more than three decades, not because of health-related issues or poor nutrition or another factor that might be one of the usual suspects that are the inhibitors of longevity. One man who was interviewed said that he had prepared a poisonous drink for himself that he was ready to consume as soon as he received confirmation that his beloved had died; she was ill at the time. This story, at least within the limited scope of this short documentary, was not atypical. The abbreviated and edited narratives of tribal members brought the phrase “life worth living” into new focus.*

Far from being a morose glimpse into the lives of a relatively cloistered community, the narration and video documentation underscored the purposefulness of life, the intentionality of attending to what one is compelled to do, whether by necessity or desire. Implicit, and occasionally stated outright, was a message of living collectively with one another; wherein life was seen as delicately interwoven with the lives of others. This was not a go-it-alone adventure. One wonders, in this frame, how much living one can do from the vantage point of one’s couch. If we are to sit then perhaps we might seek out a bench in a locale where, before one sits, one must journey at least a little.


* This was supposed to be a quick recap of an article on sitting, thus my apologies for yet another mini-treatise on mortality. Having time on your hands to think in solitude has an unexpected set of effects on one’s musings; I have a renewed appreciation for and an embodied understanding of Walden than ever before.

walking — the great american shame

In a recently published article in Slate, Americans’ general lack of walking is matter-of-factly declared a crisis. Adults and children alike in this vast country walk far less than in its industrialized counterparts, i.e., Britain, Switzerland, Japan, and others. Part of the problem, the article’s author, Tom Vanderbilt, claims, is “our uncommon commitment to the car” — not only as a primary means of transportation but also, I’d venture, as central to our economic, cultural, and social identities. This allegiance to the car has rendered walking as “an act dwelling in the margins, an almost hidden narrative running beneath the main vehicular text.”

And even as we can say with certainty that hardly anyone walks in the States, the converse is also true — whether, as the author notes, as an “adjunct” the car-related activities or as a sometimes necessary evil, everyone walks. Vanderbilt writes

“In this ubiquity, paradoxically, lies a weakness: The very act is so common that we tend to forget about it, to remember that it is something that needs to be nurtured, protected, encouraged. Save for charity drives and recreational enthusiasts, there are few organized groups of self-identified walkers.”

That which becomes commonplace, like basic ambulatory function, requires attention — perhaps we might not all achieve the degree of attentiveness and zeal that many of our European counterparts bring to their walking practice, but it doesn’t seem egregious to suggest a greater commitment to the practice than we currently have. To walk, not necessarily to somewhere, but for the sake of walking: is this anathema to the American way of being?*

One might wonder what the point of walking is. That precisely is the point — that is, far from being point-less, walking is point-free. Walking presents the walker with time, distance, space to ponder — these benefits, if we must cast them in that light, are those we are either happy to pay exorbitant costs to obtain or are easily dismissed as the purview of  naturalists, dilettantes, and the hapless car-less. But leave the benefits — philosophical and physiological — aside and consider the humility, the profoundly human quality of walking. That’s all, just chew on that a minute. Then, whether alone or along a line, with boots made for the occasion or with new shoes on, go for a walk.

A caveat: point-free walking is not always easily achieved. Recently, upon returning to Philly, I have found it difficult to take a new route; this is the problem with thinking you know a place. As if in response, my usual walk home from one of my usual cafes revealed yet another new housing structure that has sprung up in the few months I was gone. (I’ll spare the reader commentary about this city’s inexplicable voraciousness for new housing, complete with tax breaks and all the rest, at the expense of the city’s real needs…). Peeking out from an adjoining wall is a quarter of the pixelated mural of autumnal trees –  a wistful reminder of the passing of time, the cycles of bureacracy, the obscuring of landscapes as domiciles become big business, a hearkening back to the moment when an emtpy wall called out for a new face and that face was tenderly applied with brushstrokes,  paint, and laughter — I imagine laughter accompanied the making of most murals, even the sad ones…don’t know why.

So let’s walk, see what we see that we might have seen otherwise or at an other time, and check back into the Slate series for additional inspiration, wittiness, and socio-historical contextualization of this utterly essential characteristic of the human condition that we Americans seem all too happy to do away with (dangling preposition notwithstanding).

* My Pandora radio station is having its fun with me — as I am getting ready to publish this post, Mary Chapin Carpenter’s song “Why walk when you can fly” has started playing. Why, indeed.

once seen, twice photographed

Glimpses and peeks into London corners and crevices via Postcard From a New London (in the New York Times Magazine).

My favorite of the collection (with full credit to photographer Mark Neville of the New York Times):

(thanks to e for the link!)

The New York Times has also recently made available a living archive of photographs that they have used alongside the paper’s printed words, complete with images of the backs of the photos on which jottings and markings tell even more stories behind the stories: The Lively Morgue.

sometimes you feel like a cut

It’s a fact. If I’m stressed or in a rut, I run out and get my hair cut. Unintended awkward rhyming couplet aside, the fact remains that chopping my locks, however short they may already be, has a rejuvenating effect. And for those keeping count, it’s been a shameful four months since that last happened and thus the dreaded ratty ends seem to have exponentially blossomed overnight. But how could I ensure that I would not get so wrapped up in someone’s tall or tawdry tale that I forget to pull the reins if the shears start to snip too freely? Once again I started with a general internet search, I visited a nearby Aveda salon, and there might have been an online review that caught my eye — who can say for sure, perhaps it was just a feeling that led me to walk into Feel Soho (oh, I’m just full of puns today, aren’t I?) and cavalierly inquire about the next available appointment. 1:15p said the woman who greeted me at the slim podium. The clock showed the time as 12:39p and I was in between meetings. The timing was perfect; I hoped the cut would be, too.

When I returned to the salon after a short walk to run an errand, grab a cup of tea, and inadvertently walk through one of London’s mini red light districts — not once but twice — I was greeted by a tall man with a broad smile and escorted to the black leather sofa in the back of the simply decorated, one room salon. I had arrived a few minutes early and the stylist to whom I had been assigned was finishing up with another client. I didn’t mind waiting. The few minutes afforded me the chance to drink in my surroundings. Red leather seats with low backs, two parallel walls lined with mirrors, an efficient 4-chair shampoo station, and signage: styling promotions that encourage you to refer a friend and receive a discount; prices for the services offered at the salon, all fairly routine; and three or four stylists bustling about, all men with female clients. Only too late did I see the information for the wifi connection. The time also allowed me to gather myself a bit before letting a complete stranger have a go at my hair. And not just any stranger. A man. A male hair stylist. Ok, I may be the last remaining person on earth who hasn’t had a male hair stylist, but it’s true. (And I don’t count the “advanced styling student” who was given the charge of blowing out my hair before a wedding. He and I did not see eye to eye about hair volume; I wanted none and he wanted more, more, more!) All of the people who have taken their shears to these locks have been women. So Stelios — pronounced with much more loveliness in his native Greek than English script may allow orthographically — stood next to me as I sat in a consulting chair and we chatted for a few minutes. Relief washed over me as my few requests were heard and repeated back to me in a kind manner.

A young woman gave my hair a lovely shampoo and massage before walking me to a chair facing a mirror near the front of the salon. Instantly my mind went to a scene from The Artist in which Peppy writes a note for George on his dressing room mirror. In another in a string of beautiful scenes, George spills his drink onto the mirrored surface below him and we, the audience, see his image come through the dissipating liquid. What did George see? Was it the same as what the audience saw? Although I was looking straight ahead, what I was registering was everything that was reflected but my own face. Mirrors possess strange powers in how they allow us, beckon us, force us to see and what they cleverly obscure if we let them.

Stelios met me and we talked for a few more minutes before he began to snip with small and precise cuts, many of them, taking only a small number of strands in between his fingers for each cut. He switched to a second pair of shears midway through the process, freeing them from the thick, black case that held no less than a dozen different scissors of similar size. He took time and care and in the process started a conversation in the same fashion. We talked first about where I was visiting from and then, because I couldn’t help myself from asking, he offered responses about where he had emigrated from: Greece, a year and a half ago, and slowly enjoying London more and more as his network moved out of the realm of Skype and took more shape in the form of a community in his new town. We talked about economics and the decisions a nation makes in support of or against its citizens, who makes up nation state versus citizenry — and is “versus” really the right relationship? (no.) — and reflected with sadness about recent events in his homeland, including worry for family who are still living there. It wasn’t long before the conversation turned to education. Funny how that happens. I have found it a simple explanation to describe part of what I do as being a “teacher of teachers” and today this led to a discussion of how qualifications transfer between countries. You see, Stelios has been cutting hair since finishing high school — making him, I later realized, nearly ten years my junior. Age epiphanies aside, I learned that after he received his initial training he then continued to study and was certified in his homeland as a trainer of stylists, although he has yet to put this training degree to use. So we talked about certification of qualifications, about vocational education and the value placed on various life choices, about what qualifies someone to be able to do something or to be someone. It seems as if we are always, everywhere, managing the ramifications of the power held by pieces of paper. As we talked, I sat in my red client seat facing the mirror and  Stelios also sat in a metal, kidney-shaped stool, first to my right, then to my left, and then behind me as if it was the most natural thing in the world. I refuse to believe it was mere coincidence, then, that later that afternoon, while waiting for a colleague at a coffee shop, I read the following passage in Teju Cole’s Open City in which the narrator, Julius, relishes the comfort of a visit to the tailor following his father’s death:

The sensation of being in the tailor’s shop was, even in those circumstances, pleasant. I liked the smell of new cloth and, for me, the intimate wonder of getting measured for clothes was like that of getting your hair cut, or feeling the warm back of the doctor’s hand nestled against your throat as he checked your temperature. These were the rare cases in which you gave permission to a stranger to enter your personal space. You trusted the expertise proffered, and enjoyed the promise that the opaque maneuvers of this stranger’s hands would yield a result. The tailor, simply by doing his job that day, comforted me.

This is my third re-read of Cole’s novel. I can’t help myself from reading it. Whenever I have a few spare minutes, often while waiting for a meeting to start or the tea kettle to boil water, I tap the kindle app on my ipad and pick up where I left off. Each read brings new highlights as the text calls out in unexpected ways when before the same words were mere supporting cast. This passage, read on this afternoon, provided perspective, reassurance, explication of sorts — why the mundane is what we seek when our equilibrium is set off-kilter by disruptions both large and miniscule, in the hopes, perhaps, that the routines of others might catalyze some of our own.

From time to time, in between the other threads of conversations we held in parallel, my male hairdresser with curly, chestnut colored hair that complemented his amber colored  buttoned-up vest, would check in to make sure he wasn’t veering too far off the haircut path we had charted earlier in the afternoon. He hadn’t and with each passing moment I felt whatever stressful ruttiness I had been carrying around just lift away until at the end I had my own bona fide fringe. I felt like a rock star. And sometimes that’s just what you need.

sunday revisited

portishead blended into a handful of other semi-Edith Piaf wannabes crooning overhead, bluesy lyrics that are fused with intercontinental beats and rhymes, still hearkening to another time — although today i’m not sure whether that time is before or yet to come.

an otherwise picture perfect sunday morning in philly has been marred with melancholia as news about a recent attack in philadelphia arrived in my inbox. i first heard about the incident while i was en route to ithaca a few weeks ago, but in the wake of the inconceivable penn state news-drama-tragedy that broke very soon after, the story of the man who was shot on his way home, just steps away from my regular grocery store, did not receive the same attention as it might have.

an excerpt from the story about darren rogers, the concierge at an old city apartment building for twenty years, a fellow flaneur:

A staple of Rogers’ well-ordered routine were his long walks to work.
First, he’d catch a trolley from his Southwest Philadelphia apartment. From 30th Street, he’d walk a winding, nearly four-mile route to work – for the exercise, he told his friends, and for the peace he found in the busy rhythms of Center City, and in the quiet, historic streets of Society Hill.
Along the way, he’d listen to rock and jazz cassettes on his Walkman. Sometimes, he’d walk all the way home.

stories are humanizing. i continue to believe this. learning more about the gentle character of the man who was attacked and then brutally shot by two other men, all strangers, colors this morning with more hues than the leaves on the trees outside. what would be like if we were no longer strangers, all of us known entities to one another? or at least went about our days with the possibility that we might know or want to know the others amidst whom we walk? and resist the sort of early and hateful indoctrination that was the focus of a 20/20 story about the westboro church community. sensational journalistic tactics aside, a poll on the 20/20 website poses an interesting, if somewhat oversimplified and unexamined, question: [should parents be allowed] to teach their children to discriminate and hate others based on race, religion, and sexual preference?

i watched the raw security footage of the attack on mr. rogers that the news site had made available via the police. two men walking east approached, punched, kicked and shot a single man walking west and to the untrained eye it seemed to happen in a flash, spontaneously. as the headline shouts, a brutal, random attack. does it matter that the attackers, still at large, are white and purportedly young and the victim is black and in his 40s? some people will turn and keep the focus here, and while race has been more foregrounded recently as a site of tension in this city than for several years prior and is worthy of continued attention and study, to rest the inquiry here would be misguided it seems. do we want to know the stories of the attackers? and how do we maintain our postures as generous listeners? depth of analysis eludes me as morning creeps toward afternoon and my mind lingers on sadness of this incident, made more poignant by quotes from rogers’ mother and co-worker:

“He was surprised how people cared about him so much,” [co-worker Allison Jones] said. “I told him: ‘Darren, people don’t just like you. They love you.’ ”

“He loved this city too much to ever leave,” [his mother] said. “The sports, the history, the architecture. He loves Philadelphia so much.”

we can do better, philly. much better. must be better.

at the start of a long walk

i started writing a different post this afternoon, in part motivated by my umpteenth visit to moma this summer, in an effort to maximize my membership before i take temporary leave of the apple. that post contains musings on yesterday’s cleaning-packing-purging adventures, with a twist of recipe-rambunctiousness. that post will come, but this evening’s ruminations have turned my gaze in an unexpected direction — one that is both reflective, toward memory and also poised toward unfamiliar, or rather less-than-appealing terrain — brought on by almost simultaneous happenings around the world in which young people are at the center.

two instance in particular weigh heavily on my mind, both in cities that hold special meaning for me: the first is a series of attacks by young people on apparent strangers in philadelphia — here and here and here; and the second is the protracted and fiery set of events following the shooting of mark duggan by police in london, discussed thoughtfully and almost methodically here. i hesitate to reproduce these links here for fear that doing so may be read as another act of violence, or worse may affirm ill-conceived beliefs about young people and cities. this angst i feel is a mixture of responsibility (as a citizen and educator) and disappointment (at those who inflict such harm, but also at those who amplify rather than alleviate the conditions surrounding such situations). i was going to write here that these goings-on — no, to call them anything short of devastating incidents is being untruthful, because the truth of the matter is that these incidents, laced now with intractable labels of violence and destruction, make me angry. not only at the structural realities that so often become the focus of the aftermath of such moments, but at the opportunists who go on to make a name and stake a rhetorical claim before the ashes have settled. (another potential digression here involves frustrating musings about what may be called promiscuous ethnography wherein the book is written before the ink on the field notes has even dried; but i’ll refrain. for now.)

w.g. sebald opens the rings of saturn with this passage:

In August 1992, when the dog days were drawing to an end, I set off to walk the county of Suffolk, in the hope of dispelling the emptiness that takes hold of me whenever I have completed a long stint of work. An in fact my hope was realized, up to a point; for I have seldom felt so carefree as I did then, walking for hours in the day through the thinly populated countryside, which stretches inland from the coast. I wonder now, however, whether there might be something in the old superstition that certain ailments of the spirit and of the body are particularly likely to beset us under the sign of the Dog Star. At all events, in retrospect I became preoccupied not only with the unaccustomed sense of freedom but also with the paralyzing horror that had come over me at various times when confronted with the traces of destruction, reaching far back into the past, that were evident even in that remote place.

while i don’t dare to draw a comparison between myself and this true wordsmith and linguistic activist of sorts, i do share the sentiment he offers above wherein having come off of “a long stint of work” — and i’m going to feel justified in giving these past six years (seven including my postdoc) of dangling precariously from the metaphorical pre-tenure string such a moniker — the sense of freedom is shockingly short-lived.  sure, there are days free of meetings and an excuse not to reply to messages that arrive in my institutional mailbox quite as frequently as i might have were i not at the ready with my sabbatical auto-reply… but with the tenure metronome no longer clanging loudly in my mind’s ears, i have no choice but to really listen to stories that i might have otherwise categorized under ‘back burner.’ namely, the tropes of violence that are hitting me in the face every time i click onto a news site, look at my twitter feed, or check even my personal email account. i should note that while i do work with young people in my ‘day job’ capacity and it is with their stories that i rest my research trajectories, i have long kept these tropes at arm’s length opting instead to illuminate other narratives, the lesser heard tales. the answer doesn’t seem to be a purging of one to take on the other completely, but rather an openness where there has largely been resistance. (keep in mind that these are ill-formed, rapidly evolving, nuggets of ideas. i reserve the right to recant completely and wholeheartedly!)

so, like sebald in his august of 1992, i embark in this august of 2011 with a more open ear and although i am likely to feel the weight of such discursive directions, i almost feel as if i have no choice. wouldn’t be wrong to intentionally ignore the stories that slap you in the face? this walk, i reckon, will be another long one.

as a side note, i wonder whether sebald was indeed referring to sirius, the “brightest star in the night sky” with his use of the colloquialism “Dog Star” — even as i write these words i instantly reminded that not only is nothing in sebald’s oeuvre an ‘accident’ (or hardly anything, is perhaps more accurate), but the celestial reference is especially delightful to me as it evokes one of my favorite characters from the harry potter series, sirius black.