Monday, November 23, 2009

Kayaking on the Hudson

Ready for some adventures closer to home--a readiness dictated by the increasingly cold weather and shorter days--NCT and I decided to follow our Cold Spring hike with a morning spent kayaking on the Hudson. One of the happy accidents of 2009 is that I came into partial possession of two kayaks, Salt and Pepper, this past spring; a fellow employee in my firm had planned to sell them because he couldn't afford the storage fees at the 72nd Street Boat Basin, but ultimately he decided instead to create a mini kayak co-op. As a result, twelve of us each paid about fifty dollars to cover the storage fees, created a Google calendar to track when one of us had booked the boats, and received a comically small key to the bowels of the Boat Basin.

Most of my kayaking experience has taken place in the following three places: Monterey Bay, where the kelp beds keep the rollers to a minimum while providing a glimpse into an incredible world of oceanic wildlife; Stanford's Lake Lagunitas, where I proved to be unteachable in the art of the Eskimo roll, and which, depending on the weather, would occasionally remain either unpleasantly shallow or else dry year-round; and Ithaca's Cayuga Lake, whose lake floor possesses an unchecked bounty of sharp zebra mussels. Each of these three locales ultimately taught me the same lesson; namely, that I prefer rowing shells to ocean kayaks, and that I prefer ocean kayaks to river kayaks. That said, now that I no longer live in San Francisco, where open water rowing had become a treasured part of my life, I've been ready to take what I can get when it comes to getting on the water. Enter Salt and Pepper.
NCT is my only friend in New York who possesses both the interest and the experience necessary to taking a kayak out on the Hudson, and as a result, he became my kayaking partner this summer. We weren't able to kayak nearly as often as we wanted to, but on the few occasions that we set our boats in the water, I was glad to have him by my side. And while it's true that it would have been impossible for me to roll/drag a kayak alone from the boat storage locker, across the bike/dog-walking/chaotically-running-children path of death, down the dock ramp, and across the kayak dock, I really valued his presence for one, unshakable reason: he is incredibly calm. NCT is so calm that when I see a wake the (perceived) size of a tsunami racing towards me off the back of a trash barge, and as my voice begins to take on the nervous pitch of a yapping beagle, NCT never loses his cool; instead, he paddles leisurely alongside me, pointing out the interesting detritus in the water, commenting on the beautiful sunset, and often, as a last resort before I give myself over to panic, lines his boat right up next to mine and rests his paddle across my hull while the wake rolls through. That is a good kayaking buddy.

I can't deny that the Hudson, for myriad reasons, unnerves me in a way that San Francisco Bay does not. True, I've kept to the Bay's relatively quieter reaches of Richardson Bay and Paradise Cove, but each of those sees a substantial amount of boat traffic and rough water as well. My difficulties with the Hudson can, I think, be traced to the following fundamental issues: the combined effect of the river current and incoming tides can result in one rowing against the "current" no matter which direction one is going; the traffic on the river is significant and varied, and never seems (from my perspective) to expect encounters with small, motor-less boats; river kayaks have always felt too capricious to me. Okay, that last point is not particular to the Hudson, and is also somewhat nonsensical; what I mean by "capricious" is that river kayaks respond to water in instantaneous and often unexpected ways. Such is their strength, and it's one that I've never been able to accommodate completely.

In combination with my general nervousness regarding Hudson River kayaking, however, is my love of being on the water, and for this I will suffer almost any river kayak and boat wake induced discomfort. The privilege of seeing Riverside Park from the river cannot be underscored enough, nor can the sense of tracing the City's watery boundary with a paddle. It was for these reasons that NCT and I decided to take a chance on another cold November Sunday and roll out the boats.

We walked over to the hut of the Boat Basin dockmaster (not his actual title), and rang the bell; the water surrounding the sailboats and small yachts lay flat and inviting in the cold sunshine. The dockmaster was clearly less excited than we were, but he promised to unlock the gate to the kayak dock and said he'd meet us in ten minutes. The mothballs in the boat storage locker were even more pungent in late Fall than they'd been in the Summer, and the lock stuck in the chill. We were wriggling into our spray skirts when we heard ominous was the dockmaster. He had come to tell us that the area around the kayak dock was undergoing maintenance, and as a result, the dock was closed until spring. No more kayaking until April. Our faces fell.
We walked glumly along the runner's path and looked at the dock floating in the placid water. "Let's go eat brunch", said NCT. "Okay", I replied. And so we assuaged our disappointment with giant popovers and apple butter, and talked about NCT's ascent of Kilimanjaro, among other athletic feats, which seemed all the more glorious from the perspective of a warm booth and a plate of eggs.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

A Cold Day in Cold Spring

In the early hours of a cold November Sunday (meaning at about 9:00 am, which for most New Yorkers constitutes dawn on the weekend), NCT and I met one another at Grand Central Station and bought two round-trip tickets to Cold Spring, NY. Our mission: to undertake one last, gut-busting hike before a cold snowy curtain dropped on 2009. As our train sped through the Hudson River Valley, and past suburban towns that still lay quiet in the Sunday morning sunlight, we alternately dozed, watched the river, and tried to read the paper. The journey was further heightened by my inability to find a trash can anywhere on the train--the result of an anti-terrorism campaign? Or Albany budget cuts? Alas, I laid my Zabar's paper tea cup to rest in one of Cold Spring's many conveniently placed trash receptacles in front of one of its many antique shops while NCT and I meandered to the trail head. Two and half hours after leaving Midtown Manhattan, our feet were crunching dry leaves as we climbed above the Hudson.
The Cold Spring circuit trail that most hikers undertake is about six miles long, and it begins by rising sharply above the river valley before undulating along a ridge. Despite keeping relatively fit this Fall through a combination of running (NCT and me), biking (me), and kettle balling (NCT), we were both red-faced and out of breath within minutes (so much for our alpine-induced fitness). That said, we were still hiking quickly, and as a result, we reached one of the trail outcrops much faster than I anticipated; to the South we could see West Point's campus nosing into the Hudson, with the town of Garrison just across the water. To the North stood Storm King Mountain, with its fearsome, sharp face dropping straight into the river. As we climbed what had began as a sunny Fall day became cold and foggy; I couldn't help but remember the lines from William Least Heat-Moon's River Horse, which had seemed more benign in the warm fields of di Suvero sculpture. The "dim, wet cloves" that surround the mountain started to feel more immediate, and disconcertingly so.
Once the trail leveled out, and as it alternated between large, exposed rock slabs and leaf-covered depressions, NCT and I began one of our increasingly favorite hiking pastimes--of where does this trail remind you? Due to the odd foggy weather, which was soon obstructing our views and swirling the treetops in soupy mist, NCT stated the Cascades; as a result of the uniform bare trees and leaf/mud mix, I named the Finger Lakes and the Berkshires. I was about to wonder what other place(s) might evoke all three when NCT announced that it was lunchtime, and I shut up in favor of sourdough bread, sausage, cheese, Lake Champlain chocolate, and a Jonagold apple the size of my face. We sat on a giant rock and watched the fog descend.
We, too, began our descent, and as we circled back towards Cold Spring, we encountered a man who asked us our opinion of the Americans caught hiking into Iran, an abandoned dairy farm, a preternaturally cheerful golden retriever, and a mud pit the size of my apartment (hence, bigger than one might think). The sunlight returned, and even the leaves seemed greener, once we turned south along the river and walked back into town. Any visit to the Hudson River Valley involves a requisite antiques shop tour, and so NCT and I took our muddy boots into a warehouse-like store that possessed, among other things, armoires, cooking paraphernalia, and an impressive collection of 1950s Playboys. Our curiosity sated, we sat by the river and watched Storm King watching us while we ate Perry's ice cream cones.

Back on the train, and wearing every single one of my layers, I took out the Sunday crossword puzzle so that we could use our combined brainpower to finish at least half of it. We made it as far as Garrison--at which point we watched all the cadets hop off and make their way back to school--and then fell asleep. When we awoke it was dark, and the train was about to pull into one of Grand Central's tunnels. We were both quiet as the train stopped in the fluorescent station light, and after saying goodbye, we walked in opposite directions to our subway lines. I stood on the 1 train and watched some Cold Spring dirt fall off of my boots onto the car floor. Then I walked home along the pavement and under the street lamps on my block, and dreamed about next year.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Part II: St. Gaudens' Shaking Civil War Relief

NCT and I found the American Wing empty and light, despite the downpour coating the glass roof above us. The Saint-Gaudens exhibit, however, was tucked into a windowless gallery off of the Frank Lloyd Wright room; in fact, exploring the various sculptures and photographs necessitated wandering down one long, twisty, cozily lit hallway. Whether or not the curator's intention was to evoke a nineteenth century evening, I actually enjoyed the presentation and its subsequent ambiance, and not only because the relatively dim lighting made every male bust look like Abraham Lincoln.

My first encounter with Saint-Gaudens was through Robert Lowell's poem "For The Union Dead", which I read as a teenager and whose namesake text is now one of my favorite books (it sleeps next to me on my nightstand). I purchased this particular edition at the Oxfam Bookshop on St. Giles in Oxford several years ago; it's a 1965 Farrar, Straus & Giroux hardcover with a sketch of Saint-Gaudens' Civil War relief on both the title page and dust jacket, and ever since that day it and Hass's Sun Under Wood have been my constant poetic companions.

I used to find, during the months that I spent in Oxford, that America and American poetry weighed more heavily on my mind than either did when I was at home. Then again, figurative speech regarding weight does not quite express what I felt--it seemed, rather, that America and American poetry were somehow on my mind (lightly resting?) in a way that demanded more attention than they did in San Francisco, or in Ithaca, or in New York City. Even when I went through a long Edward Thomas phase in the Fall of 2004, it was through the prism of his relationship with Robert Frost that I thought about his poetry while walking home by University Parks, or along the streets of Jericho.

As a result, because of Oxfordshire evenings spent reflecting on, and questioning whether, and ultimately concluding that "the ditch is nearer", and that, in fact and more than ever, "there are no statues for the last war here", the marriage between Lowell's poetry and Saint-Gaudens' sculpture will last forever for me. On the rare occasions that I walk by the Boston Common, the most recent of which was a brilliantly sunny and freezing March day this year, when the steep brick streets of Beacon Hill lay under a seamless sheet of ice, I always spend a few moments in front of Saint-Gaudens' "compass-needle" lean Colonel Shaw and his "bronze Negroes". Do they all still "await the blessed break"?

Of course, the Met's exhibit only displays a small mock-up of this Relief, but the curator pulled the piece away from the wall so that we could see the misshapen other halves of Shaw's and his soldiers' faces. NCT and I spent more time with Sherman and his winged victory, a contemplative Hiawatha and the ten and twenty dollar gold coins. My distant ancestor Deacon Samuel Chapin threatened to stalk the hall with his furrowed puritanical brow and dark bronze robes. We lingered over the cameos, and then decided to leave for the Central Park Pumpkin festival. "A girdle of orange, Puritan-pumpkin colored girders / braces the tingling Statehouse, / shaking over the excavations, as it faces Colonel Shaw / and his bell-cheeked Negro infantry / on St. Gaudens' shaking Civil War relief".

Why would a poet, writing one hundred years after Fort Wagner, and at a period removed from my own time in not only mood and perspective, but even in diction and meter, still weigh so heavily on my mind? Because Lowell felt like a weight as we walked through the Park, and as we watched excited children waiting for the Haunted House by Bethesda Fountain, and eating cider doughnuts while grasping their pumpkins. Wet straw from the Pumpkin Patch lay strewn across the 72nd Street Transverse, and Stebbins' angel drooped her shoulders in the rain.

"He is out of bounds now. He rejoices in man's lovely, / peculiar power to choose life and die--"

New York City Marathon, I salute you.

Because you create a 26.2 mile-long block party in New York City. Because you allow mere mortals to share the course with the greatest runners on the planet, and because you celebrate those mortals as they cross the same bunted finish line. Because you welcome runners from all over the world, and because they laugh, and weep, and scream, and pump their fists as they wend through your wide serpentine curves. Because you show those runners how far they can push themselves, and how strong they really are, and how courageous they can be. Because your last three miles in Central Park showcase humanity at its finest. New York City Marathon, I salute you!

Friday, October 30, 2009

Part I: Art and Life

Cold, rainy weather graced New York City the weekend before Halloween, and so NCT and I, our Bear Mountain hiking plans scrapped, spent a frenzied Saturday afternoon at The Met instead. The frenzy came from the hordes of wet visitors crowding into the damp and warm galleries; as a result, we decided to visit just the following two exhibits: Vermeer's "Milkmaid", and the sculptures of Augustus Saint-Gaudens.

Since I began reading Robert Hass's Time and Materials, I've looked forward to seeing "The Milkmaid" while it visits New York. Of course, in true NYC fashion our viewing involved an aggressive, over-eager crowd of Met patrons, all of whom wanted a nose-to-the-glass perspective of the painting. Coupled with their zealous and occasionally questionable museum behavior was a very loud and very cunning security guard, who seemed to take pleasure in frightening these visitors with frequent jump-inducing barks. New York at its finest.

In the brief, noisy moments that NCT and I had before the painting I thought of Hass's acolytes, who "peel time, with absolute care / From thin strips of paint on three hundred year old canvas", and of "the faithfulness of paint on paint on paint on paint", and of the oddly disconcerting repetition of "milk". And yet, it was too loud in the windowless gallery--too humid, too crowded, the painting too small. We walked into the light-filled atrium of Greek and Roman statues, and their white, marble bodies seemed both "turned away" from us and "so alive"; in fact, more alive than the Dutch servant tilting her milk pitcher behind us.

Was it too anti-climactic? NCT almost walked into a headless centurion, and I started thinking about the word "scarab". And so we walked north towards the American Wing...

Monday, October 26, 2009

An Interview with Flint Richardson

Flint is so many things to so many people, which makes it difficult to sum him up in one blog entry introduction. Should I discuss the time that he bunny hopped--on his road bike--over a bloated possum carcass while riding 25 mph down Thomas Road in Ithaca, NY? Or the evening that he microwaved a bowl of very expensive dried cherries? Or that he can ski faster than the wind (and that the wind is pretty fast)? I think that, for now, I'll just say that his real name is Malcolm, that he works with homeless dogs, and that he hates onions.
CGC: If you could be an animal hybrid, would you rather be a zebkey, a liger, or an iron age pig?

MAR: Liger. Without another thought about it. Also endorsed by Napoleon Dynamite.
Liger or Zebkey?
CGC: What do you think is the strangest part of the French movie Tanguy?

MAR: Tanguy is one big freak fest. It is difficult to isolate a single instance that can be defined as strange, or stranger, when the continuity of strangeness continues throughout the entire film.

CGC: True or false: Toko is a cooler nordic ski brand than Swix.

MAR: Swix has massive sex appeal. Toko is a cooler brand solely because of my history with the brand and nickname of Toko Jerk.

CGC: Why do you find organic cereal and frozen vegetables so irresistible?

MAR: I must admit, I have reverted from organic cereal to Peanut Butter Captain Crunch...As for frozen vegetables, specifically Cascadian Farm brand, they represent a food group component that is absent from my typical diet, are readily accessible, and taste nearly as good as fresh steamed veggies.

CGC: Envision the following scenario: one morning you wake up and ride your road bike 100 miles around Cayuga Lake. Then, you get on your mountain bike and ride out to Shindagin Hollow, where you bunny-hop etc for an hour, then begin the ride back to your house. One mile from home, while rounding a corner, you spin out on some gravel and crash out. You wake up in the hospital and see a nurse worriedly bending over you. What is the first thing you say to her?

MAR: "Are my eyes still blue?" Ya...that happened...except the 100 miles was to Binghamton, NY and back.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Quotes of the Week

After traveling every ten days or so for the last two and a half months, and after a beautiful yet freezing weekend in the Adirondacks, I came down with the type of virus that my old grad school friend JT liked to call a Krankheit Katastrophe. Fortunately for this blog, however, the days leading up to this KK, and the days of the KK itself, have yielded a well-rounded crop of quotes. Enjoy!
While watching the last installment of Ken Burns's _The National Parks_, which showed footage of the Iditarod.
CGC: "I want to do that some day--the Iditarod".
CG, rolling her eyes: "No you don't".
On CGC's recent bone worries.
CG: "If dwarves can have regular full size babies, I don't see what the hell you're worried about".
While discussing Yo-Yo Ma's cello performance for a bunch of disinterested bushmen in the Kalahari Desert.
DP: "They literally had no reaction. They were just like 'why did you drag this big thing into the desert'".
CGC: "Well I guess we would be the same if someone started singing a song to us in click sounds and we had no context for them".
DP: "There was an exchange where they performed for him, too".
CE: "Really?:
DP: "Yeah. It's like [click !kung]".
Ten seconds later.
DP: "I'm not pronouncing that right".
While discussing an acquaintance's boobs.
CE: "She has these big sloppy boobs, and she needs to just strap them up and--"
DP, puzzled: "What?"
CE: "She has these big sloppy--"
DP: "Wait, what was the noun? I didn't hear the noun".
CE: "Boobs".
DP: "Oh, boobs".
DP: "Have you seen my blue sweater?"
CGC: "No, I've been keeping an eye out but haven't come across it".
DP: "Have you seen a pair of grey pants?"
CGC: "You lost your pants, too?"
DP: "Haha, yeah. I think I just disrobed at some point and didn't even notice it".
While walking through the Hunter's Gate in Central Park, past a woman walking three small dogs.
LRC: "That woman's dog is like a rat".
CGC: "You realize that woman is Glenn Close, don't you".
LRC: "What?"
CGC: "She just won an Emmy, and you called her dog a rat".
On Day Three of the Krankheit Katastrophe.
CGC: "I'm lying on my couch, watching Kathie Lee Gifford interview Willem Dafoe about his role in Antichrist. Is this actually happening, or is it a Mucinex-induced hallucination?"
While discussing the ongoing and unexpected renovations in CGC's building, while CGC was in the throes of the Krankheit Katastrophe.
CGC: "I just found a cockroach in my apartment".
LRC: "What?"
CGC: Between the cockroach, the contractors, the water being shut off in my building, the heat not being turned on, my landlord not calling me back, the Spiderman movie filming, and whatever the f it is they're building over my staircase, I've just about had it".
Five seconds later.
CGC: "I also just joined the "Friends of David the Gnome" group on Facebook".

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

A is for Applesauce

No more blossoms grow on my lemon tree, and the lavender seems to pull its feathery leaves inward. Fall is in full swing in New York, and yet all my recent traveling--and consequent blog neglect--means that I haven't really had the chance to enjoy this seasonal shift. I rectified this situation, however, this past weekend, when I went to the Adirondacks with some friends, and returned to New York City with half a peck of small Jonagold apples. It was already dark when I returned to my apartment at 6:00pm, and as I switched on the lamps in my living room, I decided to make one of my favorite simple Autumn dishes: applesauce. "Dish" may be too formal a term, but applesauce's flexibility, in my mind, makes it just as noble as coq au vin or bouef bourguignon. I eat mine over oatmeal or with roast chicken, or just by itself, re-heated and stirred with a cinnamon stick. Applesauce is also one of my favorite comfort foods, particularly when I'm sick, and because I felt the faint headache of an impending cold, I set to work.

As I sliced and heated--I leave my apples unpeeled, because I prefer the sauce's subsequent color and texture--I thought about my friend DEM. She was very generous with both her time and her love, and even when she was swamped with work and family matters, she still often put our friendship first. Three years ago, on a frigid November Ithaca night, that generosity manifested itself in the shape of a syrupy canned peach cobbler, which she unexpectedly brought to the section meeting for our "Anglo-Saxon Law Codes" course. The October before, despite a heavy schedule of her own midterm exams and student papers to grade, she happily surprised me by appearing on my doorstep in the midst of a raucous housewarming party, and ate applesauce and Nantucket cranberry pie while we talked for hours. And the Fall before that, when I finally came home from the hospital, she moved into my apartment and cared for me as if I were her own daughter.

The autumnal view from my Ithaca porch
This is my first Fall without DEM, and I must admit that I'm finding it more challenging than I would have thought. Maybe it's because Fall, more than any other season, reminds me so much of Ithaca. The leaves in Central Park bear the same changing colours as those in my old Fall Creek neighborhood, and the children running down my block are as excited by the start of the school year as DEM and I were back on the Arts Quad. Or maybe it's because, as I make applesauce made from Autumn Jonagolds, I remember how happy I was to see DEM on my doorstep that October evening, and how she walked out of the cold Fall darkness into our bright, warm kitchen, which was filled with friends, and food, and the scent of apples.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Hardly Strictly Golden Gate Park

On all of my trips home to San Francisco I spend time in Golden Gate Park, but October is a particularly nice month to do so due to the following two phenomena: clear, cool and sunny afternoons, and the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival. This year the latter--a free three day music festival featuring some of the best international bluegrass, country, gospel, and folk (among others) musicians--boasted The Chieftains on Sunday afternoon, and if there's an Irish traditional music group close to my heart, it's this foursome from Dublin. My sister and I spent years studying and performing Irish step-dancing in San Francisco, and as a result, the mellifluous sound of Paddy Maloney's uilleann pipes are as familiar to us as dancing the Hornpipe hard jig.

CG and I walked over to the festival on that brilliantly sunny Sunday afternoon, and as we passed through groves of eucalyptus trees and by the burnished tower of the De Young, I considered how viscerally important Golden Gate Park is to me. As in, I would feel wounded if it were to change drastically, much less vanish.
A 1970s Cyclocross Race in Golden Gate Park
I continued to think about the Park's significance in my life, and its emotional importance to me, the following morning, as I went for an eight mile run roughly around its perimeter. There is, for example, the Park's familial significance; my paternal great-grandfather, maternal grandmother, maternal grandfather, and mother all explored and played in the Park as children, and my grandmother's memories of walking the Stow Lake path with her father physically resemble the same walks I completed with my own. My maternal great-grandmother's ashes are scattered among the Park's gardens. Both of my siblings rode horses on the trails in the western half of the Park, and my brother, sister, and I each learned how to ride a bike near the Academy of Sciences. Our dog took her last steps by the Fulton playground.

But there is also the Park's developmental significance, as in my personal development. Golden Gate Park is where I played Viking League soccer games as a child, ran cross-country races in high school, and practiced cyclocross as a young adult. I've had birthday parties, elementary school picnics, high school baseball games, and even running dates in its green and golden environs. I saw my first concert at the Polo Fields, as well as my first actual polo match (with horses), and even my first Dutch windmill (Queen Wilhelmina's). Each time I run or walk through Golden Gate Park, I have the wonderful sense of both homecoming and possibility.

By running west on the trails past the Chain of Lakes and Beach Chalet, I emerged out of the Park and onto Ocean Beach. I've always loved that feeling, of running west through the Park to the Pacific, as it allows me to feel--quite literally--that I'm running to the continent's edge. I stood on the sand and watched the surfers, their heads hooded in Neoprene against the cold Autumn water. I smiled, then I turned around and ran home through Golden Gate Park.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Mt. Tamalpais, I Salute You.

Because I could see your peak from the Stanford foothills, my high school track, and flights home from England. Because in you the Miwoks saw the profile of a sleeping princess, and because my great-grandmother used to ride your slopes on the "crookedest railroad in the world". Because you possess redwood groves, hidden lakes, vernal streams, and a summit that rises above the Pacific fog. Because I've watched the sun rise on your eastern face from Corte Madera creek, and the sun set over Stinson from your western flanks. Because you are the birthplace of mountain biking, the focal point of Tom Killion's woodcuts, the home of the Mountain Play and the mother of the Dipsea trail. Because I know you better than any other mountain in the world. Mt. Tamalpais, I salute you!

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Constant Bliss with Apples and Potatoes

My recent Fresh Direct order allowed me to make one of my favorite autumn dishes--Mireille Guiliano's Potato Gratin à la Normade, from her book French Women for all Seasons. I realize that waxing rhapsodical about tart Granny Smith apples and dusty russet potatoes might not whet one's appetite in the way that writing about Guiliano's pumpkin petit pots or chocolate brioche would, but there's an important reason that this dish resides in my culinary stable: it's very, very, very good.
Aside from the brisk afternoon winds in Central Park and the cold hardwood floors that have been greeting my bare feet each morning, I knew that gratin time had arrived when I placed my Fresh Direct order and noticed that this otherwise ideal grocery service did not sell Pont-l'Évêque cheese. As I've noted previously, Pont-l'Évêque is one of my favorite cheeses, and as Giuliano points out, because the gratin consists primarily of apples, potatoes, and this cheese, which are ingredients native to Normandy, it's the epitome of a Norman dish. The absence of Pont-l'Évêque necessitated an improvisation that did not excite me, and I rather glumly scrolled through the list of soft cheeses. Until, that is, my eyes alighted on the one cheese that I might love more than Pont-l'Évêque, and that I never would have guessed Fresh Direct might sell: Jasper Hill's Constant Bliss. And it was on sale. The presence of this delectable little cheese was a sign from the grocery gods--Potato Gratin à la Normande could not only be made, it could be made in the likeness of a Californian who happens to love both New England (home of Jasper Hill) and France (home, of course, of Normandy).
The same night my Fresh Direct order arrived, I toasted some walnuts, boiled the potatoes, and browned the apples with a tablespoon of unsalted butter. Because I don't like my gratins particularly creamy, I always abstain from the crème fraîche or sour cream that Giuliano includes in her recipe, and instead dot the apple and potato layers with just the soft cheese (rind included); I often find, upon reheating over the next few days, that the cheese continues to melt, so that a thin film envelopes the slices and provides just the right, rich counterpoint to the tastes of apple, potato, and walnut. Yum. For the rest of the week, I enjoyed gratin for lunch at my office desk, and then, after a gorgeous, crisp forty-five mile bike ride out to Piermont with JSH and ZH, ate the last remaining bit with a Bunbury muffin. Autumn has arrived!

Monday, September 28, 2009

Quotes of the Week

With all of my recent traveling, I've found that either my ears have failed to pick out memorable quotes, or that the people around me have become decidedly less quotable. Either way, LP remains a reliable repository of memorable quips!
On his encounter with immigration at Charles De Gaulle Airport.
LP: I wasn't exactly yelling at them, but I was saying unpleasant things.
While walking at Fort Point in San Francisco with CGC, CG, and MAR.
: If you could be either a pelican or a seagull, which would you be?
MAR: A pelican.
Thoughtfully, a few second later.
: But you know, I worry that I wouldn't be very good at being a pelican.

LP: You know, when I come to this great country, I realize that if you want someone to like you, you show them your boob if you can.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Poetry at Breakfast

When I was home in San Francisco two weeks ago, I spent a foggy evening deep inside the cozy confines of one of my favorite haunts: Green Apple Books. From the time I was ten I grew up literally around the corner from this bookstore, and before that my family was a mere eight blocks away. Many of the texts for my high school English classes came from Green Apple's eclectic used fiction aisles, and as a result, at a young age I possessed some of the most interesting editions of literary classics that I've seen (including this one of The Catcher in the Rye). From hours of browsing in those pre-Amazon days, I also explored books that I might not otherwise have encountered, in particular the minor works of authors like Henry James, Mishima Yukio, and Willa Cather.

On this last trip I had no specific agenda other than to find the following text: Robert Hass's Time and Materials. Green Apple's poetry section is impressive; in fact, to my mind it is rivaled only by Cambridge's Grolier Poetry Bookshop with regard to both quality and breadth. Grolier holds a special place in my heart, too, as it's where I purchased Hass's collection of essays, Poet's Choice, when I was seventeen (a collection that is not unlike a blog in terms of its objectives and content). But I digress. Time and Materials won the National Book Award almost two years ago, and I thus could have purchased it much earlier, but I've been a little reluctant to do so. You see, Hass's text Sun Under Wood is one of my favorite books--poetry or otherwise--of all time; I love Sun Under Wood so much that I wanted to make sure I was truly ready to let another book of Hass poems into my life (crazy but true).

I first read Robert Hass at the breakfast table, when I was almost sixteen. That spring the San Francisco Chronicle had published one of Hass's poems, "Dragonflies Mating", at the back of its Sunday magazine, and one weekday morning before school, as I ate my cereal, I picked the magazine up from the table and just started to read the poem. Because no one had moved the magazine by the next morning, and because it still lay open to the "Dragonflies Mating" page, I read it again. And then the next morning, I read it again. I read the poem each morning before school that week, so that by Friday, while we drove down Sunset Boulevard to school, the lines "Wouldn't you rather / Sit by the river, sit / On the dead bank, / Deader than winter, / Where all the roots gape?" kept running through my head. In gym class that afternoon I saw the basketball rim as "the true level of the world, the one sure thing", and the Jesuits walking down the school hallways became Franciscans "who meant so well [...] and such a terrible thing / came here with their love". And then at crew practice, I watched a flock of birds fly above the lake and thought, "I think (on what evidence?) that they are different from us".

It was weird and new, this hearing a poem in my head, but it was also wonderful--by reading "Dragonflies Mating" so many times, I felt as though I had internalized the language, and I was suddenly and unexpectedly able to recognize it in the moments unfolding around me. Not long after that week, my mother gave me Sun Under Wood (which contains "Dragonflies Mating") for my birthday, and my perspective shifted yet again. The title for Hass's text, as I soon discovered, came from an anonymous Middle English poem that was reproduced at the front of the book, and which is entitled by default "Sonne Under Wode". I read this four line poem again and again; I had never encountered this type of language before, and the lines' almost childlike meter rang through my head for days (even now, out of nowhere, I sometimes sense it rising to the surface of my consciousness). Did I know, on some level, that this poem portended years of future scholarship?

Of course, I loved the other poems in Sun Under Wood, too, and some of them--"Faint Music" and "English: An Ode"--resonated with me at the same level as "Dragonflies Mating". I also found that at times of intense work, such as the nights before final exams, the poems provided me with just the right mix of story, imagery, and idea before I fell asleep. The book rested on my bedside tables in San Francisco, Palo Alto, South Lake Tahoe, Oxford, and Ithaca, and now it's with me here in New York City, where it's just been joined by Time and Materials. The two books, both published by Ecco Press, look like biblio-twins. I haven't started reading the latter text yet, but because Vermeer's "Milkmaid" is at the Met for the next several weeks, and because Hass has a poem about the painting in Time and Materials, perhaps I'll start reading it tomorrow morning--at breakfast.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

The Last Cosmos of Summer

Although we are well into September, summer still dallies on the Upper West Side; sunlight and blue sky have smiled continuously upon the brownstones this weekend. Yet an undeniable hint of a chill is in the air, and I haven't turned the air conditioning on for days. When I rode out to Piermont yesterday with JSH, ZH, and SS, I almost wished I had stuffed a pair of arm warmers into my jersey pockets; each time we stopped on our three hour loop I became cold within minutes. Still, I like the anticipation of Fall, and I particularly like it in New York City. The season evokes a kaleidoscope of experiences and memories for me: cyclocross races and the Apple Festival in Ithaca; jack o' lanterns and fiery leaves resting on the brownstone stoops in my New York City neighborhood; cold late afternoon runs in brilliant sunshine through Golden Gate Park with my old cross-country team. 

With the beginning of a new school year and business quarter--bear in mind that this is only the third Fall since I was two that hasn't seen me marching off to school--Fall also signifies a time to re-assess my current habits and practices. And so, unable to face the post-Rosh Hashanah/pre-Yom Kippur crush at Fairway this afternoon, I decided to embrace the seasonal spirit of new beginnings and place my first order at Fresh Direct. One would think that oatmeal, tea, potatoes, and one giant fillet of wild Pacific halibut--among a few other sundries--would not necessitate an online grocery order, but one would need to understand not only how little I desired to force myself through the crowded aisles with a heavy basket and then lug my grocery bags eight blocks home, but also how much Fall makes me miss shopping at the Ithaca Wegman's.

Yes, you read that right. I LOVE the Ithaca Wegman's, and I especially love it at the beginning of September, when its thousands of square feet would burst with mountains of local apples and jugs of apple cider. I loved the wide open aisles and the huge organic produce section, and the fact that I was always able to find every single thing on my list. And I loved how familiar Wegman's was to me, in spite of the delectable surprises that often awaited inside. I loved that I knew the fish guy at the fish counter, that I knew the man who sliced my turkey at the deli and the woman who picked out my favorite Pont-l'Évêque at the cheese counter, that I knew where to pluck Yorkshire Gold off the shelves in the enormous Imported Foods aisle, and that I knew where to find the chocolate-covered macadamia nuts in the model train-ringed bulk foods alcove. I even loved searching for my Subaru in a sea of Subarus in the gigantic Wegman's parking lot. I loved that I could take my time and think while I looked--for anything.

But since I no longer live in Ithaca, just as it's now no longer summer, it's time to find some new things to love. Clicking through the Fresh Direct links, I quickly liked that I could easily review and reject things in my cart, that I didn't have to engage in basket-to-basket combat with any other shoppers, and, most importantly, that I could go back (a swiftly jettisoned tactic in any assault on the Fairway battlefield). Still, the whole experience was a little too sterile for my liking, so after scheduling my delivery, I headed out to my absolute favorite grocery shopping experience in Manhattan--the 77th Street Greenmarket. There stood my favorite peach purveyor and crates of wax beans, the farmer with the cider doughnuts and the beekeeper from the Berkshires. And as I walked back home with a heavy bag of apples and haricots verts, I noticed, standing prettily in a giant tin canister, the last cosmos of summer, a parting gift from the sun and the blue sky before Autumn's first frost. Just as they've brightened the Spanish mission gardens on the West Coast for hundreds of years, the cosmos now brighten my living room desk, and serve as both a reminder of all the things I love that won't return for a few more seasons, as well as a portent of all the new things to come.

Cosmos: the harmonious, well-ordered whole of the floral world

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Earthquake Weather

Well. In the last few weeks I've dashed through four countries, seven states, and three cities, and even managed to attend one wedding (and thankfully no funerals). Little aside from my job and the Central Park running trails have received my attention during that time, although I did read some great novels during all the requisite hours spent on planes and trains. I have a bit of a breather before my next westward trip on October 2nd, so I'm enjoying one of my favorite modes of existence: routine. Yes, I actually derive pleasure from routine, which, I'd like to point out, differs from monotony. Routine, to me, resembles the seasons--the framework remains the same, and provides a firm foundation for a year or a life, but varieties within that framework make both of these timescapes limitlessly interesting. For example, Fall reassuringly occupies the calendar from September to December; it is a constant on which we can depend, and it cannot be prevented from occurring. And yet, no two Falls are ever the same, and each one elicits comparison to the ones that came before--this Fall is so much warmer than last Fall; the leaves in the Fall of 2006 were so much more colourful than those of the last few Falls; remember the Fall when it snowed in October?

Likewise, I find my day-to-day life in New York to seem, on the surface, as placid as the seasons' passing: I wake up early, run/bike/or swim, work, buy groceries, see friends, cook, write, read, and sleep. As elusive as its certainty may be, this routine provides me with a sense of both comfort and anticipation; who knows who I might meet at the grocery store? What new idea I might encounter in a book before I fall asleep? How the morning light will look above the swimming pool? Of course, each period of life possesses its own inherent routine; as a graduate student, I would study, teach, and attend class instead of go to work, and I biked in the afternoons and evenings around the Finger Lakes instead of in the early mornings in Central Park. As an undergraduate I never went to the grocery store, but I did eat my meals communally every day, and on spring evenings I would walk past the same heavily scented rosebushes on my way home from the library. Now I pass the tall plane trees towering above the Museum of Natural History, and in Ithaca I walked home along the rocky cliffs above Cascadilla Creek. And in each one of these periods these unique yet seemingly passive routines provided me with the strong lattice necessary to grow.

This past week in California was a difficult one, but I relished the elements of my home that have remained the same, year after year, even as I have changed--the pelicans dive bombing off of Baker Beach, the coastal trail wending its way through the fog, and the hot Indian summer that descends upon the Bay Area every September. We call it earthquake weather with all the heavy certainty of an old wives' tale, and each year we wonder if the Big One will strike. Most years it does not, but some--like in the hot October of 1989--it does. And every year the chance that it will grows.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

The Endless Summer, I salute you.

Because you show Mike and Robert traveling the globe wearing suits and carrying surfboards. Because you put "You should have been here yesterday" in my stable of regular phrases. Because you film the perfect wave off of Cape Saint Francis in South Africa, and because those four minutes of footage are better than most movies. Because despite your occasionally questionable depiction of non-whites and female surfers, your joy and love of the sport affects viewers who have never even stood on a surfboard. Because you show us a California, Senegal, Ghana, Nigeria, South Africa, Australia, New Zealand, Tahiti, and Hawaii that we will never see. Because you found your endless summer. The Endless Summer, I salute you!