Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Kaaterskill Falls

In 1998, two friends who’d been dating since college got married, the first among my college crowd to take the plunge. In the next few years that followed, we’d all follow suit. But this wedding was the first among our collective, and in turn, it spurred our first bachelor party.

The groom was (and still is) an outdoor enthusiast so we broke from common convention and took him camping for the bachelor party. It was a big crowd of us, maybe a dozen. We ended up lucking upon a series of sites that could accommodate us all at North-South Lake in Haines Falls, NY.

Since that first trip, a dwindling number of us have been making a return trek each summer. I’ve missed two years (the summers our kids were born) and last year we took the year off as that aforementioned outdoor enthusiast was living in France and another in the crew was getting married.

Though the numbers have dwindled down from that first year, a core group has made what are now ten returns. Some don’t return as they’ve moved away. One hasn’t returned as he finds the event against his newly adopted religion. But for those of us who do return (and some among the faithful don’t even like camping) a love of camaraderie takes over and propels us.

It would be enough for me if the weekend consisted merely of sitting in folding chairs, sipping beer after beer as we rehash the same stories from years past – the ones I hope we’ll all be regaling till I’m a corpse.

But North-South Lake has the added bonus of its proximity to Kaaterskill Falls. Kaaterskill has been immortalized by many of the Hudson River School painters, most notably Asher Durant in Kindred Spirits.

In the summer of 1998, that first trip, we hiked to this spot not knowing what we’d find. As you can imagine from this photo (courtesy of Northeast Waterfalls), it was a pretty spellbinding experience. The more adventurous of the group hike up to that middle tier and do what we call ‘the soul cleanser’. As you might imagine, that consists of standing under the waterfall, a visceral icy experience. During years of drought, this waterfall trails off to a trickle. This year, however, with all the rain we’ve had, Kaaterskill was absolutely raging. As I attempted to get just ten feet within the foot of the falls I was absolutely soaked and a blasting wind off the water pushed me back. All year long I sit at a desk, accounting, thinking of that moment.

There have been a lot of changes since those early camping trips. The once regular naked midnight plunge into North Lake has been suspended. (A final unsuccessful attempt found us all quickly apprehended by park rangers. Most of the guys at least made it into the water while I, clutching my bits and bobs in my hands, was featured by the ranger’s jeep spotlight).

Our first year, I’m fairly certain that our provisions consisted of eight cases of beer and a few bags of potato chips. Now we always have leftover beer while enjoying meals that involve statements such as: “I added a little cumin and a special paprika from Hungary”.

I can’t help but to think that the days are numbered on this trip. As we get older, I can sense some frustrations with the inconveniences of sleeping on the ground or when, at times, we must weather rain of biblical consistency.

I can let go of some of the rituals but The Soul Cleanser is one I need desperately. And if this annual summer ritual goes by the wayside, I desperately hope something takes its place.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Green Genes


Inexplicably, I’ve begun a whirlwind genealogy project (sort of a bi-product of writing Culture Warrior, I suppose).

The reality of it is this: I’m suffering from a long sustained case of writer’s block. Digging up obscure ancestors has given my mind something to do while elsewhere, I have nothing to research nor anything salient to say.

Unfortunately, this genealogy project has hit a dead end (or at least an end until I can invest more time and perhaps a little dough into it). For the most part, this process has been logistically difficult. My ancestors were largely poor and as a result, I have to accept the inherent record-keeping limitations of their communities. If it weren’t for the Catholic parishes of 19th Century Ireland (and the Mormons of today), this process would be largely impossible.

I’m also looking for people with names like “James Murphy” or “Patrick Connolly”. It’s like trying to find a John Smith in Virginia, or someone in Brooklyn named “Anthony”.

But the biggest obstacle is one I can do little about. My grandparents’ generation was the first American-born folk in the tree. For the most part, their parents had fled some bad circumstances which went undiscussed once they relocated here. Amid this silence, basic details of their lives – the who’s the what’s the where’s – are lost. These people also committed themselves to assimilating into mainstream American culture as deftly as they could. It’s understandable that they sought to separate themselves from the identity of their homelands.

For the cousins and whatnot of my generation, we’ve struggled a bit with this. The baby-boomer tranche in our family did little in their formative years to tighten up the details of our family’s pre-American history (though, they’ve made up for it in retirement). My parents and their siblings grew up in either Brooklyn or Queens. Their generation saw great success socially and economically – meaning they moved up and out and never looked back. Unfortunately, in their younger years, the details that would have made for a robust family tree slipped away as the older generations died off while they themselves were busy with child-rearing and professional success. Just as they’d shed the boroughs of New York City for a pronounced improvement in their lifestyles, it seems an arm’s-length separation with the past of their grandparents became an unintended by-product.

I’m not sure where this leaves me or why I’m even doing all this. I suppose I would want my great-great grandchild to know who I was, that I had a name, that I lived somewhere. There are glaring black holes in the family tree where it seems not even the slightest tidbits can be found. It’s frustrating. If records are elusive, that’s one thing. But gaps in information existing because people simply wouldn’t talk – that feels just plain thick-headed.

My children will enjoy an incredibly rich trove of family history from my wife’s side. There, ancestors have been traced back centuries, some as far back as the original Mayflower settlers. Comparatively speaking, I’m just trying to play catch-up.

At a minimum I owe it to these ancestors who have been seemingly vanquished by time and the anonymity of their lives. Somehow, I feel if I can confirm their existence and know the names of the towns they’d emigrated from, know the dates they got married – I somehow bring them some validation amid the poverty of their lives. Maybe I just want to show them that someone, amid the furious materialism of our times, cared to look back.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Metropolitans and Whales

I apologize for the slackening of substantive posts. The truth is I have been woefully commandeered by my (alleged) career as of late. And you know what Confucius said: "When the accounting gets rough, the creative juices stop flowing."

Anyway.

Two beautiful reads I want to recommend:

FROM SPORTS ILLUSTRATED: This first article is from a recent Sports Illustrated 'Where Are They Now'? edition. 1969 New York Mets. Sports journalism loves an improbable rise to victory but this one hits close to home for me. In 1969, this city desperately needed a reason to believe.

The Mets will always be (at least to me) an incomparable link between what baseball once was (from it's Polo Grounds nascence - with Rogers Hornsby on the coaching staff, for crying out loud!!) to what baseball became (the cookie cutter stadiums, the outsized contracts, the media insanity). But through this evolution came the '69 Mets - an improbable collection of rising stars lead by the long overlooked gem, Gil Hodges. Somehow, they'd defeated the Baltimore Oriole machine. Hodges own son questioned his father before the series on how he thought they could possibly beat the Orioles. Hodges replied, "Shhhh...I got twenty-five guys in that locker room who think they can can win..."

Just shows...ya gotta believe.

FROM NEW YORK TIMES MAGAZINE: When I was a child I was obsessed with whales. I can give no tangible source of this obsession. Finback, humpback, blue, beluga, orca...these were distinctions I could catalog before I could master reading Dick and Jane books. I'd like to think that my whale fixations gave planet earth its first evidence that I possessed some form of usable, noteworthy intelligence.

Perhaps it was the whale's other-worldly majesty that captured my imagination. These times also saw a long overdue backlash against the whaling which victimized these gentle beasts for a century. Such an underdog struggle fighting the throws of commercialism certainly could have tapped into this Sisyphean gene I seem unable to shake. (We all could argue that such a gene has manifested itself in my devotion to the New York Mets).

I don't know. Whatever. Something clicked. And since those days of my youth, two things have happened: (1) whale populations have rebounded and (2) I did NOT become the ocean-trotting whale scientist-advocate which I suppose everyone predicted I'd become. Career-wise, it appears as though I've become one of those barnacles that clings to a whale's underbelly, hoping for the ingestion of stray parasitic handouts.

ANYWAY!

The Times Magazine section had a beautiful article about interactions between humans and gray whales in Baja. Apparently in a lagoon, a place where humans once hunted grays into near extinction, grays now engage humans in such a manner that indicates a shared intelligent curiosity. Other studies higlighted by this article reveal how whales exhibit heirarchical communications and complex emotions (such as grief), all of which lead to the unsettling realization that these beasts which our previous generations had ravaged unmercifully, demonstrate an emotional sensitivity whose closest earthly comparison is...us: humans, long their murderers. The following passage slayed me:

"A female humpback was spotted in December 2005 east of the Farallon Islands, just off the coast of San Francisco. She was entangled in a web of crab-trap lines, hundreds of yards of nylon rope that had become wrapped around her mouth, torso and tail, the weight of the traps causing her to struggle to stay afloat. A rescue team arrived within a few hours and decided that the only way to save her was to dive in and cut her loose.

For an hour they cut at the lines and rope with curved knives, all the while trying to steer clear of a tail they knew could kill them with one swipe. When the whale was finally freed, the divers said, she swam around them for a time in what appeared to be joyous circles. She then came back and visited with each one of them, nudging them all gently, as if in thanks. The divers said it was the most beautiful experience they ever had. As for the diver who cut free the rope that was entangled in the whale’s mouth, her huge eye was following him the entire time, and he said that he will never be the same. "

Friday, July 10, 2009

The Driftwood (Amagansett, NY)

For reasons I can’t pin down I’m thinking of Amagansett, Long Island. There’s a small hotel called the Driftwood where my family would stay for a week every summer when I was growing up. It was the highlight of the year for me.

Amagansett is a town you’d barely notice. It’s the lies just beyond the uncontainable fabulousness of East Hampton but is also several miles before Montauk, the tip of the island.

I seem to recall my family was at our happiest there. My parents would sit and read on the beach. My brother would be in the ocean, battling wave after wave while I would explore the dunes, go for walks to nowhere, or make friends with other kids. At night we’d drive out in the Chevy Malibu to find a restaurant. This was the last spell of time where we were a family of parents and children. Mom and Dad were relaxed and comfortable. Marty and I took everything in with a sense of insane happiness and wonder.

Every night after dinner, I'd walk on the beach with my father, stretching my strides to fit my footprints into his; still such an impossible mission. My dad would achingly stare up at the sky when every JFK-departing jumbo-jet would pass overhead. He'd fantasize about all the exotic European destinations where each plane's journey would complete. He'd been a kid from Jackson Heights. Europe was a distant dream for him - a dream that his unfolding years of dedication and luck would soon make a reality.

Dreams.

Planes in the sky.

Soon my family would move to Tennessee, soon my brother and I would lapse into the abyss of adolescence. Soon my brother would go to college. Soon I’d struggle with a mixed Southern-Northern hybrid identity. Soon I’d go to college. Soon I’d forget about the Driftwood but caught myself occasionally wondering if it still existed.

On September 11th 2001, I was working at Lehman Brothers in the World Financial Center. When it all went down I was at my desk. I thought the first plane was an earthquake. And I was on the phone when that second earthquake arrived. It took me twenty-eight minutes to get out of that building. The exit stairwells were wall-to-wall, packed with people - thousands of us. No one said a word.

When we got outside, all hell had broken loose. Paramedics were treating bleeding people on the streets. Sirens, sirens, sirens. Floods of people heading north. Floods of firefighters heading south.

I took one look up. The upper halves of the towers were cloaked in black smoke. I didn't look again.

Fighter jets buzzed. Planes in the sky.

I don’t remember much of the next couple of hours – a lot of running and disbelief. Some time later, I ended up at my cousin’s office in mid-town where I crashed on a couch for a spell. Later that evening, I went home. That was that.

The days that followed were rough – I had some shaky nerves and I didn’t sleep. All in all, I didn’t have it rough at all. I’d survived and should've counted myself as one of the lucky ones.

My wife and I were supposed to go visit her parents in Hawaii on the 13th. That was off – no one was flying. On Thursday, work called saying they wanted me to report to a make-shift location in Jersey City the following Monday.

I was sick of sitting around the house. I was sitting then standing - then sitting again. I'd watch the news, I'd turn it off. I drank a lot of Jack Daniels. Id' try to sleep but the next day it'd all start again. We had to get away.

I don’t know how the idea of The Driftwood came to me, but it did. And it was the perfect place. I don't remember too much of what we did - kitchy seaside stuff. Drives. Long walks on the beach. Just quiet.

We went there for a few days. Things got better.

Mid-way on the Sunday drive home, I exhaled in a sort of intangible, unidentifiable way. The next day, I'd go to work again. Life would go on again. Everything was going to be okay.


Sunday, July 5, 2009

Fifth Business


When I stand among the gaggle of parents watching our offspring play little league, I always keep an eye out for my neighbor Bob. Usually conversations amid these sidelines are restricted to children and illnesses (with the Moms) or children, sports and work (with the Dads). But early in our friendship, Bob and I learned that we could converse on books. Now we seem to share a continual conversation that continues, practice to practice, picking up where the last one left off. I'm grateful for it.

I had to take note, then, when Bob used the words 'absolutely my favorite book' when describing Robertson Davies' Fifth Business.

'Fifth business' is a term from opera for the fifth wheel in a production - the tenor has the soprano, the contralto has the basso. But the 'fifth business' is a fifth player with no counter yet he is a vital facilitator for all relationships.

When taking stock of our lives, what do we want remembered? What should be remembered? Upon his retirement, Dunstan Ramsay's life has been encapsulated in a recent tribute by the boys' school where he'd taught for many years. Something however is missing, something so important that Dunstan composes a letter to the school's headmaster to set the record straight?

But what is it that is so glaringly absent? Fifth Business is that letter. As Davies chronicles the initial stages of Ramsay's life (a childhood in rural Canada, service in WWI, his post war recovery) we begin to see Ramsay as a man of sensitivity, deliberation and empathy. Nowhere is this more poignant that in his relationship with Mrs. Dempster, a local woman whose life of tragedy, isolation and illness becomes a cross Ramsay will not relinquish.
Through all these phases we see how Ramsay is the 'fifth business'. Events unfold wherein he (often painfully) bears witness, but never finds himself at the heart of the matter.

Another beacon of Ramsay's life is Boy Stanton, a childhood friend whose trajectory is the polar opposite of Ramsay's. Where Ramsay's path led to contemplative academia and teaching, Stanton's world was financial and political success, much of it achieved via soulless, mechanical means. As Stanton's success balloons, Ramsay silently accomodates the unravelling of his character.

Fifth Business knocked me out. It is elegant and eloquent without being inaccessible. I gave serious consideration to not even bothering to attempt to discuss it on this blog, as a friend of Bob beautifully wrote of this fine book here.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Cheveux Redux

The Bad Hair Days

When I was in high school, longish moppy hair was in. I went to an all-boys Catholic school where one might assume hair would be tightly regulated. And it was – the rules were that hair had to be above the top of your collar in back and no sideburns below the earlobe. But there must have resided, in every breast, a burning urge to hear the words: “[insert name], Cut That Hair!!”

It is perhaps a badge of honor in parochial education to experience some form of subversion, thus every boy in my school sought ways to circumvent the hair rules. (There was one boy who sported a crew cut but I recall he was largely regarded as psychopathic).

Skirting the hair rules was usually accomplished via a sideburn-less layered matted look with hair falling into the eyes and a mullet that looked as though a machete had just hacked it at the collar line. My school was also in Memphis, Tennessee so there was an added effect in that most of the student population, almost entirely devoid of any visible ethnicity, shared this universal hair style to accompany their homogenous appearance which I’ll just call caucasianus whitebreaditis.

This presented a problem for me. Although I am of Irish and German ancestry, the hair of my youth was this unruly mass of black frizz (I won’t insult curly hair by calling it curly). There were no curls, just a sort of explosion of lustrously black kinked chaos. Think Jimi Hendrix – think of Juan Epstein. That was my hair.

Besides the visual exhibition that my hair elicited, it served as an added demarcation. I had been relocated to Memphis from New York during these high school years. And just as certain brightly colored insects warn birds of poisonous composition; my hair had an evolutionary purpose in conversation, as it served to warn my classmates that something foreign and undoubtedly suspicious would most likely be rolling off my tongue.

At the time, I should have considered napalm as this unrelenting hair grew incessantly and with a ferocity usually reserved for angry cornered jungle animals. It seemed to grow back immediately upon exiting the shop of befuddled barbers who’d just spent a toiling hour futilely trying to tame the beast.

Here in the Northeast United States, such hair is sometimes given the pseudo-affectionate name Jewfro, which could have applied, had I been Jewish. [In fact, we did have one Jewish kid in my school: Arkin was his name. Yet he shared the omnipresent, fashionably acceptable blond faux-mullet that all the other students had. He even had a Southern accent, for Christ’s sake. I remember staring at him in disbelief, wondering why I was to suffer alone].

Below this expansive noir-sponge on my head, my generally odd appearance was further challenged by a body consisting of a near-six foot frame that only weighed 120 pounds. My grades weren’t great and pretty Southern girls generally likened me to a mentally ill public transport patron who finds himself deprecatingly shunned by the general populace. I feared that I might be headed for a lonely existence marked by the dual accomplishments of avoiding both baldness and obesity.

The wealth of commentary my hair inspired among my schoolmates ran within the range of benevolently ignorant to unsettlingly racist. The first question would always be (a) was I Jewish, then (b) was I Italian, and then (c) was I (part) black? Question (c) would be asked in a variety of ways, often using words that little imagination is needed to conjure. These were words I’d heard used in New York, of course. It’s just that now I was seeing people use these words without first looking over their shoulder.

Now, of course, my hair is falling out. During stressful times at work, I see laughing little shards of it descending. They fall upon the papers in front of me, as though mocking the work I do as my age appropriate deterioration ensues. I angrily sweep them aside yet there is always the faint echo – there’s more where we came from

I buzz my hair short to thwart the clown-like ludicrousness of a man who is balding in front yet retaining everywhere else. The abundant black head vegetation is gone. Like so many selective elements of youth, I wish to retrieve select components, but not all that went with them.

Questions for Discussion:
1. Why is Slimbo writing about his hair now? What’s happening in his current life that has brought about this need to explore his adolescent hair frustrations with such detail?
2. What could Slimbo have done differently to better assimilate into his new environment? Should he have done anything differently?
3. When Slimbo’s fellow students queried his background with respect to his hair, how would you have responded in his place?

Homesick

It’s been a week now since I made my first visit to Citi Field so I reckon I should make a quick comment. Unfortunately, I was unable to make the universally recommended walk around the entire stadium. I could not reach The Shake Shack. The Pepsi Porch will have to wait until next time. The game I saw was Game 1 of the three game series against the Yankees (or, as I should properly phrase it – Game 1 of the Mets serving batting practice to the Yankees). Anyway, it was insanely crowded, made worse by a torrential rain storm that forced all attendees to pack into the tunnels. Walking around was simply not an option.

I suppose the night felt like being in an airport, a nice amenity-rich well serviced airport, in a nice clean city, populated by polite nice people. It just didn’t feel like New York.

When I was thirteen, my family moved to Memphis from New York. Due to the disparate scales of living standards, our modest average New York house was being replaced by a Southern behemoth house. My room doubled in size, we had a pool and now I had my own bathroom. Though lovely, I suppose it took time before the place felt like home.

Of course, my Citi Field transitional difficulties could just be my intransigent need to cling to the past…or the profoundly miserable results of that game. Say what you want but Shea Stadium had a grit in its discomforts, a grit that’s needed to endure a team such as this. Watching the Mets get slaughtered in this gorgeous billion dollar facility is like watching your best friend make a drunken ass of himself at a black tie function. And it just didn’t feel like New York.

But just as Memphis didn’t feel like New York, I eventually did learn to adjust to my new digs there. Kind of easy with the pool and all.

For further reading:

1. BTW – a big shout out to The Camacho Don for scoring the tix.
2. Gary Sheffield. That’s the answer to “what Met hit the first Met home run Slimbo saw at Citi Field? Answer to 'who else hit home runs in that game?': The entire Yankees team, bench and front office staff.
2a. It was nice to see the (new) big home run apple go up….though I do wish it were the old battered apple from Shea that’s been relegated to the tunnels.