Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Going West, Going East

I've discussed the tension between going east and going west on this blog before, and the fact that I went east has been on my mind again this week. Call it an intense case of "synchronicity", to borrow Jung's phrase by way of Tom Wolfe; first, the New York Times published Wolfe's op-ed on Mark Twain; second, my hometown paper reported on a current debate taking place in the Tahoe area regarding Twain's alleged lakeside campsite; and third, I spent the last few days reading Wallace Stegner's The Sound of Mountain Water: The Changing American West. Suffice it to say, I've been knee-deep in myths, histories, and ideas of "The West", and the ways in which this narrative affects both "western" writing and "westerners'" self-perceptions.
One conspicuous outcome of this synchronicity, so to speak, is that I've wondered how "western" I am. True, unlike Twain I actually did grow up in "The West", and while I've never worked a farm, cleared a plot of land, or depended on manual labor for sustenance (and no, corralling three year-olds does not constitute manual labor), I've spent years living in and exploring the hills, mountains, and watersheds of Northern California. My predilection for hot showers and a bed means that I've never spent months camping--as NCT can attest, after days of backpacking I cartwheeled with excitement down the flanks of Mt. Blanc to Courmayeur, solely at the prospect of getting to use a hairdryer--but I've slept under the stars in Western Marin, on the shores of Upper Angora, Fallen Leaf, and Aloha lakes, in the redwood groves of Sonoma County, and in Yosemite's broad valley. Perhaps most significantly, I've never started a wildfire while cooking dinner at a campsite.
I suppose "The West" will always be a kaleidoscopic concept, and from a mix of personal, literary, and historical standpoints. I like Stegner's twist on the "idea" of "The West", which I think he crystallizes particularly well in The Sound of Mountain Water in a fictitious vignette that features both Route 66 and Walt Whitman. He write as follows:

"I can imagine the good gray poet, not afoot but definitely lighthearted, taking to the open road down Highway 66, and I can see his eagle eye and his wind-split beard, and hear his words as he squints westward along the vista walled by the work of these latter-day pioneers.
'Oh road,' I can hear him shouting,
'You road I enter upon and look around, I believe you
are not all that is here,
I believe that much unseen is also here.'

It is hard to fool a poet."

But not, according to Wolfe, a wannabe Westerner.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

In the Bliss of Routine

Last week, and aside from the general rhythm set by work, errands, friends, and sleep, my evening walks home anchored each day with a sense of calm familiarity. The days have stayed light until seven thirty, the adult softball and kickball teams have returned to the Central Park baseball diamonds, and beside every field the trees stand tall with thick green canopies. As I begin my third summer in New York City, I'm surprised--again--by the new things I learn and discover while treading the same paths and reading on the same benches. The wisteria that retreated last June has blossomed once more by the bridle path, and the April light cuts across the Gapstow Bridge as I walk northwest and home.
I recently finished Donald Hall's latest memoir, Unpacking the Boxes; of a poetry class he took at Harvard with Archibald MacLeish, Hall writes, "Because I worked on poems for hours every day, I was offended when MacLeish called me lazy. He referred not to hours worked but to the ambition of my endeavor, to a conflict between apparent size and real scale". Something about my walks, for me, evokes MacLeish's distinction--the forty-five minutes are small relative to the other pursuits that fill my time, and yet they are a mountain in the mind, and, perhaps, the sustenance on which my life grows.

Hall, in any case, seems to have resolved the conflict. In "Routine" he writes a world into five lines, and, to me, with both the scope and focus of another year in New York and a wisteria flower in spring. Because I can't help but feel--can anyone else?--that I will live forever in the late evening sunlight, while the cheers and crack of bats echo through an April Central Park.


In the bliss of routine
--coffee, love, pond afternoons, poems--
we feel we will live
forever, until we know we feel it.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

An Interview with Julia Lowd

I first met my cycling buddy, travel partner, and fellow New Hampshire lover Julia Lowd on the cross-country ski trails around Ithaca. Actually, I think our proper first meeting took place in the dingy Cornell Outdoor Education basement, but the cross-country ski trails sound like a more auspicious setting, and it's true that this context foreshadowed many of the events that would occur in our years of friendship (e.g. me crashing spectacularly on skis while Julia obliviously skied on and continued our conversation ---> me stumbling into, and resignedly walking along, a rouge road drainage ditch while Julia and I hiked from Amboise to Chenonceaux, our conversation unabated). Luckily for me, Julia is now my UWS neighbor, and so we can continue to talk past each other while we circle the Central Park loop on our bikes on early weekday mornings. Who better, then, to interview in this month of bike cleaning and daffodil blooming?
This is how we do it in La Drôme Provence
CGC: Why is "Granite State of Mind" such a brilliant parody?

JFL: "Everybody pump your fists and yell 'live free or die! Live free or die!'" That about sums it up. Jay-Z couldn't have said it better himself.

CGC: Which of the following do you find most terrifying: French washer/dryer combo machines, looking for an apartment in NYC, or people who have never ridden bicycles?

JFL: Oh gosh, that's a tough one. I think the French washer/dryer combo machines are going to have to win out here. There is absolutely nothing worse that having damp, wrinkley clothes... every time you do your laundry. There's also something just a little off about the same tiny, tiny machine both washing and drying your clothes.

CGC: In what ways are the novels of Marguerite Duras superior to those of Dan Brown?

JFL: I can't believe I just spent 10 minutes thinking about all the ways I could answer this. Is this a trick question?! Dan Brown's ability to write a sentence makes me cringe.

CGC: Which two individuals deserve the titles of "greatest male alpine skier of all time" and "greatest female alpine skier of all time"?

JFL: For men, it has to be Ingemar Stenmark, Swedish superstar of the eighties. He's won more races than any other skier, and he really rocked those eighties outfits. If we're going for the most game-changing skier, though, I'd have to say Bode Miller. I know he's a cliche these days, but he totally revolutionized the slalom turn. For women, I'm putting in my vote for Janica Kostelic, the once unknown country girl from Croatia. She's tough as nails and if she sat on you, you'd probably end up with a few broken bones. She's also won 6 Olympic medals and is one of only two females to have won world cup titles in all 5 disciplines in a single year.

CGC: If Fabian Cancellara called you tomorrow and told you that you were the love of his life, what would you say?

JFL: Ohh, he's pretty dreamy. I might go weak in the knees for a minute. Then I'd ask him if I could ride in his team car during the Tour. Then I'd see if he could hook me up with Andy Schleck.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

The Whale

As I near thirty, I've decided that it's time to shed some of my literary antipathies, and because I found Thomas Hardy so unexpectedly wonderful, I next approached a novel of which I've always been very wary: Melville's Moby Dick. Notwithstanding years of AFD's avid endorsement, as well as more recent praise from HMS and AJS, Moby Dick and I had yet to make an acquaintance--Billy Budd proved to be a poor mutual friend--until I toted the text along with me to New Hampshire last month. I began reading the night we arrived, and within a paragraph Melville disarmed me by listing the Germanic etymology of the word "whale". For a crusty American author, he sure knows the way to an Anglo-Saxonist's heart!
Philological discourse aside, Ishmael's narrative captured my attention from the start; perhaps this can be traced to his immediate description of Manhattan, my current home, as "belted round by wharves as Indian isles by coral reefs", or perhaps it's because he self-reflects with such statements as "whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul" (could this be the American equivalent to Dante's "per una selva oscura"?). True, Melville intertwines natural history, Shakespearean characters, classical tragedy, swashbuckling action, and poetic imagery all into one impressive text, but I found myself most taken with the latter--beautiful and striking images that continue to stay with me days after I've finished the book. For example, Ishmael speaks of the Nantucketer "[who] out of sight of land, furls his sails, and lays him to the rest, while under his very pillow rush herds of walruses and whales"; similarly, with regard to the relentless whale hunt, Ishmael states, "and as upon the invasion of their valleys, the frosty Swiss have retreated to their mountains; so, hunted from the savannas and glades of the middle seas, the whale-bone whales can at last resort to their Polar citadels, and diving under the ultimate glassy barriers and walls there, come up among icy fields and floes; and in a charmed circle of everlasting December, bid defiance to all pursuit from man".
Spermaceti Cavities?
Call it literary destiny or not, but my reading of Moby Dick coincided with my return to regular swimming, and in the last two weeks I've noticed the following strange phenomenon as I freestyle my way through the pool: I swim like a sperm whale. Laugh all you want, but it's true; on the day that I ate lunch late at work, and two hours later felt my full stomach roll side to side with each stroke, I could not deny the sense that I was a small, freckled cetacean out for a swim. Furthermore, the longer I considered this bizarre perception, the firmer it grew--soon my swim cap became a ridged cavity full of spermaceti, not a blond ponytail, and the children in the adjacent lane swimming with their flippers and snorkel masks along the pool's bottom became aggressive sharks out on the prowl (I swam especially fast that day).
The stomping grounds of the small, freckled cetacean
I wrote, with some concern, to AFD about my new aquatic identity, and he replied, "sometimes I wish I were a sperm whale"; then he suggested that I read Philip Hoare's new book, in particular the section in which Hoare swims with real sperm whales. I had already added the book to my list after reading the Times' review a few weeks ago, but I felt better knowing that I was not alone in my odd self-perception. I'm always a little wistful when I finish a rich, thick novel, and Moby Dick is no exception. Still, as with all great narratives, and just as the sperm whale ingests the colossal squid, I know that the story and its resonant images will remain within me for a long time to come.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Quotes of the Week

Spring is here, and if most of these quotes are to be believed, then love is most definitely in the air (or at the very least, amorous sentiments are). Vive l'Amour!
While encountering CGC in the office kitchen.
SPA: "You received a haircut".
Pauses and looks CGC over.
SPA: "It is a substantial haircut".
On CRP's two month-old baby girl.
CGC: "How's your daughter doing?"
CRP: "She's very lazy".
JL: "I think dating gets harder as you get older".
CGC: "I agree".
LP: "It definitely gets harder when you're married".
CGC: "Are you seeing anyone right now?"
CP: "No, but as of Monday I'm in love with someone".
While discussing CP's new found soul mate, who shares her love of olive curing.
CP: "And then we each named our ideal olive, and it's the same olive!"
While watching a bunch of amorous frogs in a bog at Rockefeller State Park.
CGC: "If a frog climbs on another frog's back, and then another frog climbs onto that frog's back, can all three of them, um...make it happen?"
While pointing to some clearer, less crowded water.
CGC: "If I were a frog I'd go hang out over there".
NCT: "Not if you wanted to pass on your genes you wouldn't".
And finally, in honor of the Stanford women's basketball team, which made it to the NCAA final and nearly defeated UConn for the national title, I offer the following observations from legendary coach Tara VanDerveer:
TV: "Why would you shoot a water pistol when you can have a cannon?"
TV: "They say they're Cinderella. Well, it's midnight, so send them back to the pumpkin patch".
TV: "The movie 'Dumb and Dumber" was already made, and you were not in it".
TV: "You're a Ferrari. Stop moving like a Volkswagen".
TV: "You want to have fun. Try winning. Now that's fun".

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Celeste in Spring

A recent slew of sunny days motivated me to undertake some spring cleaning, and several stoop sales on my block indicated that my neighbors felt the same way. However, spring cleaning for me doesn't signify an apartment overhaul; I'm a neat freak year-round, and I don't own that many things to begin with. Instead, spring cleaning means one crucial chore: a thorough, no-holds-barred bike cleaning and tune-up.

Celeste: Bianchi Birota
Back in the days when I used to wrench under BobWölfé's tutelage, I would have dedicated an afternoon to cleaning my bike myself; in other words, I would hosed, rinsed, pulled apart, oiled, re-cabled, scrubbed, and trued until my beloved Celeste looked, sounded, and felt brand spanking new. Now, however, I find that the following three things prevent me from doing so: lack of outdoor space (i.e. no hose or area conducive to hosing); lack of advanced tools (i.e. no bottom bracket tools); and straight up laziness. Luckily for me, the Upper West Side possesses a solution to all three of these problematic concerns, and that solution goes by the name of Imbert, although most people call him Master Bike. Thus, when the sun shone without cessation and the stoops overflowed with random household crap, I knew that it was time to pay Master Bike a visit.

The three days that Celeste stayed with Master Bike were very challenging; I couldn't help but gaze enviously at the cyclists rounding the Park on my walks home each warm evening, and I hated the giant empty wall space in my apartment where Celeste normally rests (she likes to hang from her rear wheel). And so it was with a happy heart that I picked her up last Thursday, and I exclaimed with joy at her sparkling clean frame and pristine cassette, save for an invisible film of lube. I had even asked Master Bike to spiff up her handlebars with new celeste green bar tape--a difficult request, since the last person who had wrapped my bars was my 'cross idol Barbara Howe, and I liked to think that she transferred some of her awesome cycling power to me each time I touched the tape--and as a result Celeste practically glowed.
Celeste: Elaphas Babara
I bid Master Bike goodbye (he had first greeted me with a "Ciao, Miss Bianchi", as I believe he only recognizes me by my bike model), and then, with my noble Italian steed by my side, I skipped home, where I hung her in her rightful place. Soon after I met JFL early in Central Park, and under a grey April morning sky, we spun past Sheep Meadow and up Harlem Hill, and then spun past them again and again. Throughout the Park blooming daffodils lined the paths and the magnolia trees stood heavy with full pink blossoms, while the whirr of bike chains and click of gear shifts mingled with our non-stop chatter (what can I say, we're girls who love to ride). Each time I looked down at Celeste I smiled. Here's to months of wonderful bike riding, and to the arrival of Spring!

Monday, April 5, 2010

A Stone Barns Sunday

Chicken On the Run
On Easter morning, NCT, LTV, JC, and I rendezvoused at Grand Central and caught a 9:56am train to Tarrytown. Our destination? Rockefeller State Park and its 10+ miles of broad, bucolic trails. Although I like the steeper and rockier hikes at Cold Spring and Breakneck Ridge, I did enjoy the easy conversation that Rockefeller's paths allow, as well as the quick pace that JC set. We explored the park's "thirteen bridges", traced the southern boundary of Swan Lake, and spent some time observing the hyperactive mating rituals of some very muddy frogs in a very brackish bog. NCT even claims to have seen an eagle (perhaps a hawk?).
After exhausting Rockefeller's trails, we cut across a long, rolling green field and entered The Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture; moved by a desire for baked goods and cold drinks, we headed to the Center's cafe and shaded flagstone terrace. The unseasonably hot April sun, in my opinion, forced me to purchase and quickly devour a large slice of cold potato and goat cheese frittata, a serious helping of chilled beet salad, and one bottle of Fizzy Lizzy grapefruit juice (I rarely ever drink juice or soda, so clearly something untoward was taking place). This stands as one of the best meals I've had in a while, and it particularly felt fitting as an Easter lunch; I'd even stowed a Cadbury cream egg in my backpack for a mid-hike celebratory hike, but I forgot about it until I'd returned home and unpacked. C'est la vie.
Food and shade nearly resulted in a catatonic outcome--i.e. nap time--but we roused ourselves to tour the farm, and thus see the flora and fauna that would soon rest on Blue Hill's elegant dinner plates. In the course of our self-guided tour we saw the following: a gorgeous greenhouse with dirt floors and a retractable roof; a boisterous sheepdog guarding many woolly and hungry sheep; lots of roosters clucking up a storm; several pigs snorting and rooting about in muddy straw; sleepy cows on a sunny hillside; four humans trying to peel pithy grapefruits (that would be us).
Verbena and Rosemary Babies
Perhaps someday I will nibble on petite lamb chops and dandelion greens on Blue Hill's summery terrace; until then, however, I'm happy with picnic lunches and early spring hikes, sunny afternoons and a sleepy train ride home.

Friday, April 2, 2010

Cara Cara Orange, I salute you.

Because you are the sweetest mutation I've ever tasted. Because you are equally at home in an early spring salad, an icy sorbet, or alone at the breakfast table. Because your ephemeral season belies your magnificent flavor. Because your history includes Venezuela, Florida, and California, and because you occasionally show up in distant New York city supermarkets. Because you are the citrus equivalent of a sultry samba, and because you are truly a "beloved" tree fruit. Cara Cara Orange, I salute you!