Night Lights

After my Spanish class last week, I walked through Herald Square on my way home. The temperature was freezing (literally), but I stopped and took in the scene. I crossed the street, then turned to look again and take a picture, then walked a few steps, then stopped one more time before continuing on my way. A passerby would have thought I was a tourist in New York for the first time or a resident New Yorker on her last night before moving to a new city. I’m neither, of course. I can walk here whenever I want, and I do, at least once a week after my class.

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I’ve passed through this touristy area many times, but for some reason the atmosphere of colored lights and city night reminded me of certain evenings near the Opéra Garnier in Paris. Some Monday nights, one or two British girl friends and I would meet at the same café for a slice of quiche or a hot chocolate. I’d walk there from work, when it was almost dusk, and by the time we emerged from our chats, it was nighttime. I’d turn the corner to walk to my bus stop, pass lit up commercial stores and theatres, and there would be the Opéra Garnier. Like Herald Square, it was a normally busy area that cleared out on cold nights but kept its buildings aglow.

I think I just realized why I like Hopper paintings. Or do I feel myself expand in these real life scenes because I like Hopper? Rhetorical questions. Words rarely encompass feelings.

I’m not as head in the clouds as my writing makes me out to be. Not all the time, anyway. If anything, my feet are firmly planted on the ground, looking at what’s around us.

Do you get those moments
in between all the running around and responsibilities and worries
too?

Nirvana

Lunchtime in the park in Manhattan. On the next bench over from me, a man sits and chats with his friend who has rolled up and parked her wheelchair next to him. I’ve seen her in the park before; she has some kind of handwritten sign affixed to her chair. They seem to be regulars who linger in the park without anywhere to rush back to. A girl comes by and greets them. She is a student, perhaps in college. I wonder how they know each other. They talk about her classes a bit. In the course of their conversation, she mentions Nirvana.

Man: Nirvana? Is that a white girl? She won a Grammy, right?
Girl: It’s a band.
Man: It’s a band? It sounds like a girl’s name.
Woman: You’re thinking of Rihanna.

An old man approaches. I scoot over a bit to make room for him. He obviously knows the rest of the group, but they merely tolerate him. He is very drunk and has a small bottle of alcohol with him. His manner is subdued, not raging, though he’s definitely out of it. He tries to talk to me about his travels during his time in the service and his anxiety these days, but he has trouble completing his sentences, so his thoughts taper off as quickly as they begin. However unfinished, his brief mumblings reveal more in a flash than decades of greeting a distant neighbor or colleague in passing.

People in the park.

The Glass House

Last fall a friend and I took a tour of The Glass House in Connecticut. It was a great suggestion on her part because it was located equidistantly between us, about an hour’s drive northeast for me and southwest for her. She booked us tours ahead of time. Designed by architect Philip Johnson and located on what was his private property until he died in 2005, The Glass House can only be accessed through guided tours.

We met up for lunch at a cute café, opting to sit at a table outside. It was a short walk to the building where the tour began. The guide started by showing our group a wall of photos from Johnson’s life and talking about his beginnings and influences. We then hopped on a shuttle to take us to the actual property.

The entrance was imposing. The guide discussed Johnson’s sense of humor; the gates resembled a guillotine or tombstones and rose far above us in a manner that could be considered menacing, yet they didn’t really block access to the grounds. One could in theory just walk around them, as they weren’t connected to a fence.

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The two-hour walking tour was much more than The Glass House itself. On our walk to the house, the guide showed us other buildings on the property, all designed by Johnson—Da Monsta, his studio, the Ghost House, the Sculpture Gallery (yes, there was a gallery on the grounds—he had money to spend)– and spoke about his design choices, not only for the buildings, but also for the placement of paths and trees and walls. The property was created with its relation to nature and visitors’ experiences in mind.

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A path on the grounds101_1272

Do you see the Ghost House below?101_1273

The Sculpture Gallery, sculptures temporarily hidden away in boxes101_1304

It so happened that we were there in the year of two anniversaries—the tenth year since The Glass House opened to the public and 110 years since Johnson’s birth. To celebrate these milestones, Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama had been commissioned to create several works on the property. She plastered red dots all over the transparent house, placed 1,300 silver spheres to float on the lake below, and created a large steel pumpkin that sat a short distance from the house. She likes circles and pumpkins. The tour guide told us that Kusama is the most popular female artist in the world (determined by number of visitors to her exhibitions).

At first I was a bit disappointed that we wouldn’t see the house in its standard state, all glass and striking to the eye. After hearing about Kusama and actually seeing and standing inside the house, however, I appreciated the dots, which I found joyful and whimsical. The structure was as striking and fascinating as ever.

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Johnson used The Glass House as his summer home and for entertaining. It would have been too cold in the winter.

What it must have been like to attend a party there.

It was a perfect day. My friend and I both have an art history background, and one of my favorite classes in college was Intro to Architecture. (I also took an Architectural Design class that kicked my a**, but that’s a story for another day. It was enjoyable but kept me up all night bent over foam boards while gripping a box cutter.) The tour was like being in school again, learning with visual aids and asking questions of someone who could answer them. Not to mention that in this case most of our “class” was outside on a beautiful fall day with the most moderate of temperatures.

The Glass House is closed for the winter and will reopen on May 1.

Cock-a-doodle-doo

It’s been over a month since the start of the Lunar New Year. The year of the rooster began on January 28. For us Chinese (and several other Asian ethnicities), it’s the chance for a sense of rebirth on the heels of the Gregorian New Year, just shortly after the French stop saying “Bonne Année.” Not only that, but the celebration goes on for two weeks.

I follow the superstitions surrounding the Lunar New Year, just in case. Clean the house the day before but not the day of. Eat three good meals. Eat long noodles. Don’t get your hair cut. Wear red.

Did I mention eat well?

On New Year’s Day this year, a group of friends and I had lunch in New York Chinatown. Our ringleader was my friend who is Chinese-born. Then there was me, who is Chinese American, and seven non-Chinese Frenchies, several of whom had spent a few years in Beijing.

Perhaps you know how it goes in Chinese restaurants. Rather than ordering our own entrées, we ordered dishes to share (though this place lacked a lazy susan, which would have made second helpings easier). After a meal of fish (presented in complete form), lobster, meat, eggplant, noodles, rice, and more, we wandered out into the streets to watch the dragon dance, in which several dragons accompanied by loud drums went from door to door. Businesses put money in their mouths for good fortune. Sidewalk vendors sold long cylinders that when snapped in half, popped and shot confetti into the air. Kids threw fake firecrackers on the ground that made a loud noise upon impact.DSC00187DSC00188DSC00189DSC00190

About a week later, I came across these fierce dragons near Times Square. Though they’ve apparently been there since last fall, I hadn’t noticed them up close, and they seemed particularly appropriate to take a walk around and greet for the New Year.

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They made me smile. How could they look so ferocious and joyful at the same time? It must have been the heart and happy faces on their noses.

I am still finding confetti. Today I was sitting outside and saw a piece of shiny pink confetti on my pants. It must have fallen out of my purse. That’s how you know you celebrated New Year’s well.

A Screwball Comedy

What is, My life as a film?

I have been wearing tall black boots almost every day to work. I like them a lot, but I’m tired of wearing the same thing. They’re just the best winter footwear I have that are appropriate for work.

One night this month, I was inspired to dig out my black loafers from my closet. I’d worn them probably once or twice in the past eleven years. Overall I had used them for only one or two years in high school. My little Catholic grammar and high schools required a uniform, and for years I had worn variations of black laced shoes and black loafers. While it was exciting to make the change from laced shoes to loafers in seventh grade, once I went off the college, I never looked back at those loafers.

Once in a while, when going through my shoes, I would take them out, admire how new they still looked, and decide to keep them for when I needed an extra pair.

That moment finally came recently. I thought they looked pretty smart with my jeans and black turtleneck.

The next morning, I took the bus, then the subway. Halfway through my walk from the station to work, I felt a loosening around my right foot. I looked down, disconcerted.

My shoe had come apart around my foot.

I couldn’t believe it. The edge around the toe of the shoe had partly broken off, and the sole had broken in half. I could see the bottom of my cat socks.

I knew that rubber band in my purse would one day come in handy. I wrapped it around my shoe and gingerly walked to work.

At my desk, I contemplated how to go about the rest of the day. Unfortunately, I had a meeting in about fifteen minutes across the street and had to remedy the situation immediately. It was clear that one rubber band wouldn’t prevent the half-sole from slipping away from my foot.

I started to color a rubber band with a permanent black marker, then quickly abandoned that idea. Did you know that the texture of a rubber band doesn’t lend itself to marker?

I stuck some scotch tape on the bottom of my shoe. It was like dropping a square of toilet paper in a large puddle.

I wrapped about ten rubber bands around the top half of my shoe. That should hold it together for  now.

Now, how to disguise my collapsed footwear?

I looked at the stash of small plastic bags on my bookshelf. A standard white plastic bag would make it too obvious that I was trying to hide a problem. I decided to go in the other direction and selected the bright red plastic bag and tied it around my shoe, knotting it at the bottom. Maybe it was so flashy that people would assume it was a style choice. This was New York, after all.

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My brief foray across the narrow street to my meeting made it clear that there was no way I could walk all day in this shoe, let alone commute home. It was falling apart.

Luckily, I work in a neighborhood with a lot of stores. DSW, the shoe mecca, is under a ten minute walk away if you’re walking at a normal pace. I, however, was walking with a slight limp to avoid creating too much movement of the various separated pieces of my shoe. This did not work at all, and I ended up stopping six or seven times on my walk to readjust the tectonic plates, which were rapidly slipping away from the desperately clinging rubber bands and now tired-looking red plastic bag.

My low point was when the plastic bag blew off, and after quickly considering whether to let it go, I ran to retrieve it and wedged myself between a mailbox and a trash can to retie it under my shoe. It had torn from the walking, and I wasn’t sure if it would make the block and a half to DSW. At this point it wasn’t just to keep up appearances, but to keep the moving parts together.

The employee at DSW looked down at my shoe as I walked towards the clearance section. To her credit, she greeted me normally. I responded brightly.

I scored silver booties for $17.98 after a 70% reduction. I’m not sure it was fair to be so richly rewarded for my foolishness.

I don’t know what the lesson is here. Choose one that suits you: Always keep an extra pair of shoes at work. Shoe glue expires. Things aren’t made the way they used to be. Don’t neglect a pair of shoes for eleven years without expecting a revolt. Always stay within half a mile of a DSW. Shame is real. Leave loafers in school.

Snowshoeing without Snowshoes

I skipped out of work a couple of hours early (having worked late several evenings this month) and hopped on the Metro-North train to visit a friend who got married last summer. A few weeks prior, I was sitting in a restaurant next to three young women, one of whom was espousing the line to her two friends: “The Metro-North is the way to travel. It is like, so sweet.” I’m not sure I would go that far, but it does tend to be on time (great if you’re early, out of luck if you’re running late).

My friend and her husband picked me up from the train station in New Haven, Connecticut. Along for the ride was their big Doberman puppy, who jumped all over me as soon as I got in the back. She alternated between being very conspicuous—bounding on me and chewing the crocheted lanyard on my bag—and almost invisible, as she is black as that Friday night.

In their town about half an hour’s drive away, they had left their door unlocked for the other friend who would be joining us for the weekend and had arrived shortly before. We certainly weren’t in Kansas anywhere—or maybe we were closer to Kansas? In the Jersey suburb where I’m from, we wouldn’t leave the door unlocked if we weren’t home.

Here were wide open spaces. A long, wide driveway leading up the house. Peaceful, snowy trees out back. Birds flitting around a feeder on the deck. A kitchen that could fit two, perhaps three Parisian studios.

The weekend was a lovely one, with a BIG pancake (to quote the menu), laughter and talks, the making of not one but two cakes, music and movies, cuddling with the two dogs, and a hike up snowy hills and along a frozen reservoir.

In Paris I used to visit a friend in Marseille every few months. Since coming back to the States, I’ve done the same with my friend in Connecticut. The Metro-North is not quite the same as the TGV, but it’s still “like, so sweet” since it takes me to scattered parts of my heart.dsc00223dsc00224dsc00226dsc00229dsc00234dsc00235dsc00237dsc00240dsc00242

Multiplication is the Answer

I think about my friend Donna around this time of year.

In one of the cheesy Family Circus comic strips, a woman asks the mother of the family, “How do you divide your love among your four children?” The mom answers, “I don’t divide it. I multiply it.”

To me Donna was that comic in action, and I remind myself of both whenever I feel jealous of someone’s tie with another.

At her funeral, I remember realizing how far her reach extended. She had touched many individuals throughout her life. She had always made me feel special, and to know she had made others feel the same way brought home that there is not a finite supply of love. Caring for one person doesn’t have to diminish tenderness for another.

This should be obvious. I have family and lots of friends, a number of whom I consider close. Those in my circle are all important to me.

However, the same way a woman might criticize her appearance but be generous in assessing others, jealousy can creep in unwarranted.

Remembering Donna is like throwing a fist in the air and exclaiming that we have an immense capacity for feeling.

The second thing I sometimes think about since losing Donna: no one is replaceable. I’ve met smart, thoughtful people since her, and I have friends and acquaintances who support me and whom I root for. But no one is quite like her, and no one does it quite like she did. I suppose that’s awful and awesome at the same time.

Estoy nerviosa

I was a bundle of nerves even before I left work. I wasn’t hungry enough to eat the dinner I had packed, but I gulped a yogurt and a pudding in succession to stave off hunger over the next couple of hours. I get peckish if I don’t eat frequently.

On the subway, I was so nervous. I also realized that this is what I was missing recently. I’m a thrill seeker. Are we all? I don’t feel inclined to go skydiving or try drugs, but once in a while I love that feeling of stepping outside of my comfort zone and doing things that are in no way dangerous but make me feel uncomfortable.

Life is pretty exciting when there’s all that buildup just for a Spanish II class. The drama, the drama.

The reason I had jitters is that the last time I took Spanish was a year and a half ago. I had started from zero, and while I had practiced vocabulary and grammar a bit since then, I had never become comfortable enough to try speaking with people conversationally, and I didn’t know how much I had forgotten. What if I was way behind all of my classmates? A language course is not the type of class where you can sit in the back and blend in if you’re not prepared; the whole point is to be put on the spot and talk.

This is how it goes when you take a class that is held in a New York City high school, or my experience anyway:

– You take the subway, ascend out of the station into the busy night streets surrounded by skyscrapers, and pass a hotel and Duane Reade on the way to the school. You forgot that school entrances have so many doors in a row in order to allow large quantities of students to enter and exit.

– You flash your ID at the three employees in the lobby. Are they all security, or is just one on duty and the others are hanging out? Seems like a lot of people to be present when there’s not a lot of foot traffic in the evening.

– Your class is on the fifth floor, and you ascend via escalators. For some reason this is really novel to you. You take escalators in subway and bus stations and department stores, but you’re not sure you ever have in a grammar or high school.

– The escalators between the first and second floors are broken, so you walk up them. There are two. You can’t imagine going to class up and down multiple sets of escalators every day.

– Finally on the fifth floor, you go to the women’s room, still very nervous. This class is non-credit and nothing is on the line, but there it is.

– You walk in the classroom, two minutes early. Some desks are grouped; some are on their own and facing the front. People that have already arrived have taken seats near the front that are on the side. Those are the seats you would have taken. There are many seats in the middle and back of the room and still a few near the front that are part of the grouped seats. You take the empty seat that is front and center. Seems logical for someone who is afraid of being put on the spot.

– Class begins. The profesora has everyone introduce themselves—she says you should all know each other’s names—and the reason why they want to learn Spanish. Several people want to travel to Cuba. Two girls are occupational therapists who work with Spanish-speaking patients. A couple of men have significant others who are Spanish-speaking. You say that you want to learn Spanish in order to speak with Spanish-speakers.

– For the next activity, students group into two or three and ask each other questions to get to know each other. Entonces, you each introduce your partners to the rest of the class.

– Then the profesora informs the class that the facilities workers in the hallway want you to move to another classroom because there is a mouse in this one. Lest you forget, this is a school in New York City. You wonder how often this usually happens. Is it a regular occurrence, or did a ráton just want to audit the class?

After all that, it turns out that I am ahead of most of my classmates. I only took one school year of Spanish in Paris, but my impression at that time that we were moving very fast was correct. Perhaps it was partly because Spanish taught to French-speakers can be done at a quick pace given the similarities in grammar and vocabulary, and partly because my teacher was just very good. Whatever the reason, I’m going to be just fine, and I’m definitely going to be much more relaxed before the second class. I’m kind of going to miss those butterflies, though.

Graffiti

Sometimes when I see graffiti, I think of:

– The day one of best friends and I rented bikes and took them along the Canal Saint-Martin far out of Paris. This was before I signed up for the cost-effective annual Vélib subscription, so he and I were racking up a fee, but I think we’d both say it was worth it.

– Sitting along an isolated part of the canal on a warm day having a conversation with a Right Bank mec I knew. It started drizzling, and we skedaddled to find cover. Where did we go? A bar? Was that the day he taught me how to play pétanque? I don’t recall, but I remember the grinning cat graffiti across the water.

I guess there is a lot of graffiti along parts of the canal.

Somehow they hold for me pleasant memories of unrushed afternoons en français.

Bof

I feel a sense of dread about this year. There are various reasons for that that aren’t easy for me to verbalize.

I generally think of myself as a positive person, and I think most people I know would describe me that way, but when I think back to years ago and then move forward to more recent years, there were periods where I struggled to find something positive and some beauty in life. As is the case with everyone. Life ebbs and flows. If we’re lucky, we have more happy times than sad ones. I know in the grand scheme of things, I’ve been lucky. And #blessed, if I was someone who used hashtags.

During hard times, where I turn to find that momentary relief has changed over the years. Within the past decade one source has been nature. Looking up in a quiet space outside. Witnessing the trees that are bound to change next week.

And there’s music. Writing. People. Turning outward when it’s tempting to turn inward and stay there.

For a few weeks now certain things that I thought I had almost become desensitized to have reasserted themselves and stayed wedged in my mind past the moment. They span the levels from personal—what’s happening in my circle—to global—what’s in the news.

A small example: every time I see a homeless person in the subway now, the sadness I feel lingers longer than it used to. It seems inhuman to hear someone beg and then go about one’s day. There is a man I see sitting in the corner of the subway entrance every morning. What would help? I’m not going to give money every day. Would a smile be better than ignoring him?

I think in most cases, the feeling of malaise in difficult situations comes from feeling powerless or not knowing what to do or believing that one’s actions or words won’t make a difference.

If someone told me all this, I would probably tell them to think about what they can do, and try to do it. Sittin’ and sulkin’ ain’t gonna do anything. Well, I wouldn’t tell anyone the latter—tough love isn’t really my thing—but it’s what I tell myself after a night spent worrying or when a cloud descends on my mind.

More thoughts to come.

 

Note: I wrote this two and a half weeks ago. It’s representative of a moment in time, and good and hopeful things, as well as bad and worrisome things, have happened since then. Everything evolves (though I still wouldn’t say I’m feeling particularly cheery).