The One With A Cappella

It’s been said that not all who wander are lost. And then there was that thing about roads diverging in a wood.  Despite the romanticized hubbub about the benefits of being lost, I’m not buying it. I like to know where I’m going and how long it’s going to take to get there. I take the most direct route from point A to B. I’m stressed when I know where I am, but can’t figure out how to get where I need to go. (Metaphor, anyone?) I tend to get the most frustrated about getting lost when I should be the least worried about it—when I’m on vacation.

Problem is, when I get lost, it’s rarely an idyllic setting. I’m never ambling along a pretty country road with a charming farmhouse on a hill in the distance. I’m not strolling beside a classic river waving at a boat captain as a gentle breeze kisses my cheeks. No. If I’m lost, it’s in an industrial wasteland where columns of black smoke are pouring into the sky covering everything for miles in ashy soot. And it’s probably raining.

But there was one time I got lost on purpose.

I was traveling solo in Florence, Italy. It was dark, but not too late. I’d stopped at the Piazza della Repubblica for the third day in a row to get my favorite apricot cookie from the pastry shop on the corner. This was before my phone was smarter than me; I had a map and my memory to find the way back to my pensione.

The streets running through Florence’s city center might have been planned by children playing a game of pick-up sticks.  The narrow lanes run every which way and some didn’t even appear on my map. But now that I was a regular at this patisserie, I’d developed a sort of muscle memory with the route. It was a right at that handbag store, then a left, past the bank with the enormous wooden doors, then another right along the Vespa parking station, and a final left with my hotel on the corner. One wrong turn and it was all over for me. I’d be forever stuck in a cobblestone labyrinth filled with tourists wearing their backpacks on their fronts who would be of no assistance.

Then I heard the most wonderful chorus. I followed it like a hound on a scent. Down the smallest of side streets I went, trying to find the source, with no regard that I could end up roaming around Florence for eternity. Their voices echoed off the buildings making it difficult to find them, but I was determined.  If Barbra Streisand, Audra McDonald, and Judy Garland had their own glee club, this is what it would have sounded like.  For fifteen minutes, I must have walked up and down every street in the vicinity, worried the whole time that they would end their tour de force.

I made a left down a street I was sure I’d walked before, and there they were, standing in front of a shuttered shop. A small crowd had gathered in a semicircle. It was…heavenly. I found out later that the women were three American exchange students and preferred the acoustics of this street. They liked the idea that their voices floated up above the red-tiled roofs of Florence. They were sharing their art with the city.

A Cappella

Everyone can sing, but not everyone can sing well. I’m in the latter group. In fact, I’m a terrible singer. I only sing in the shower or on solo car rides so as not to inflict my Tiny Tim voice on others. Only my hairbrush knows the depths of my embarrassment. Well, my hairbrush and Reggie, who has arrived at resigned acceptance because I feed him.

Please, I beg you, make her stop.

Please, I beg you, make her stop.

 

Due to having a voice that sounds like fingernails on a chalkboard, I have a reverence for people who have this gift. It took me an hour to find my way back to my hotel that night in Florence, but I floated on their voices all the way there. Maybe I should allow myself to get sidetracked more often. Maybe I don’t always need to know where I’m going. Sometimes that’s the best way to be uniquely surprised and inspired. Sometimes it’s “not till we are lost…do we begin to find ourselves and realize where we are and the infinite extent of our relations.”

Come to think of it, now that I have a “smart” phone, I haven’t wandered in a while.

 

When was the last time you got lost? Have a great weekend, everyone! 

The One With the Old Stone House

Today is Independence Day in the U.S. and I’m taking you on a special Tourist in My Town trip to a little place a few blocks from my apartment in Brooklyn. The first and largest conflict of the war is about to begin, and this stone house is going to play a crucial role. Old Stone House Brooklyn It’s August 1776 and Brooklyn is mostly wilderness. There are a few ports and farms dotting the landscape. There are more sheep than people. Inside this stone house were the Vechte family of Dutch origin. They harvested oysters from the nearby Gowanus marshes and took them to market in Manhattan. They will eventually live in this house under British occupation and quarter British soldiers, but I’m getting ahead of myself.

When they look out into the harbor, they see 400 British ships, carrying more than 32,000 soldiers. There is a general feeling of panic, especially among Dutch settlers who number in the thousands. They have no loyalty to the crown or to the rebellious colonists. They came to America for some peace and quiet and religious freedom.

Sketch of the British fleet in the NY harbor, published in Harper's Magazine on the Centennial, 1876

Sketch of the British fleet in the NY harbor, published in Harper’s Magazine on the Centennial 1876

General George Washington has brought the Continental Army to Lower Manhattan, convinced this is where the British will attack. Control of Manhattan means control of the harbor and the Hudson River, a crucial supply line. But he is wrong. The British go with the element of surprise and instead move into Brooklyn.

Image via NYPL Digital Archives

View of Lower Manhattan from the harbor. Image via NYPL Digital Archives

It is now the First Maryland Regiment’s task to keep the the British contained in Brooklyn. Unfortunately, the Marylanders are seriously outnumbered. Early this morning Washington has realized his mistake and sent some of his Continental Army by boat to Brooklyn Heights for reinforcement. He heads to the top of Cobble Hill (which the British will soon level) to gain a vantage point of the fighting. Watching the Marylanders, Washington reportedly says, “Good God, what brave fellows I must this day lose!” The Old Stone House becomes the focal point of one of the skirmishes, changing hands several times until finally a fresh group of Hessian troops (serving the king) joined the British to take the little house for good. The First Maryland Regiment loses about 260 men—some take direct fire and some drown when retreating through the marshes. Fewer than twelve men make it back alive.

The Old Stone House on the eve of the battle. Image via Wikipedia.

The Old Stone House on the eve of the battle. Image via Wikipedia.

Ignoring advice from his subordinates, British General Howe decides not to press on to Brooklyn Heights where he has most of Washington’s Continental Army nearly surrounded. He probably figures Washington will see the hopelessness of his situation and surrender, thereby avoiding more casualties. But on this night, a great fog rolls in over the East River allowing what remains of the Continental Army (including cannons, horses, and supplies!) to steal away in rowboats to Manhattan. The men row a mile each way, some as many as eleven times, hoping the fog will conceal them from the hundreds of British ships in the harbor. At daybreak, Washington himself is the last man on the last boat and the British awake to find the Continental Army has vanished.

maryland-400-monument

Maryland 400 Monument in Prospect Park

Have you recently visited any historic sites in your city?

Have a great weekend, everyone! 

The One With the Bicycle

“In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few.” – Zen Master Shunryo Suzuki

 

Reggie and I are taking a late afternoon walk. It’s on the steamy side. The sun is at that particular angle where you cannot escape it. Shady spots are hard to come by until the sun lowers itself behind the brownstones.

There is a boy on the sidewalk ahead of us. He’s wearing knee and elbow pads and a bike helmet. He’s walking his bike, a throw-back banana seat number, which he’s outfitted with stickers of characters I’m too out of touch to recognize. His mother and younger sister— judging by the large round eyes that seem to run through their family— are sitting on a stoop playing I Spy and waiting for the boy.

He looks older than the typical kid learning to ride a bike. Maybe he’s just big for his age. Or maybe it’s a byproduct of living in a busy city with crowded sidewalks and streets. Or maybe his mother is overprotective. Whatever the reason for the apparent delay, today is his day. His mother has given him a starting point near the end of the block and he is to ride to meet her midway.

These beautiful people in Amsterdam had learn how to ride.

These beautiful people in Amsterdam had to learn how to ride.

 

As he attempts to get going, the bike is jerking from side to side. If he is recalling a bad fall and it’s making him nervous, I’d understand. (Exhibit A. Exhibit B. ) He’s trying to control the bike through force, but he has to learn that it’s a gentle finesse that will keep him upright. He has to have the confidence that he can do it, before he can do it.

Unfortunately, he hasn’t learned this yet. I see him getting more frustrated by the moment. Finally, impatience (combined with 90 percent humidity) wins. He loses control and the bike tips over. He’s fine physically; emotionally is where it hurts most. He wants instant gratification. He wants to be a protege. He wants it to be easy. Like riding a bike.

He kicks the bike now lying on the ground and starts to cry. Not little a little sniffle, but giant tears and choking sobs. He takes off his helmet and throws it on the ground. By now his mother has come over. She’s saying the soothing things that all kind mothers say. “No need to be so upset. You’ll get it soon enough. It takes a lot of practice.” She’s speaking from experience of course. With age comes the knowledge that most accomplishments are hard won. Figuring out the ropes of a new job; learning a new language; driving a car without running anyone down. Mastery doesn’t happen overnight. He doesn’t know this, and it’s not something he can learn by hearing it.

And he doesn’t remember the difficult things he’s already learned. How often did he fall down and get back up when he was learning to walk? How many times did he try to chew on his mother’s hoodie before he understood it wasn’t edible?
As Reggie and I pass the boy and his mother, I feel a twinge for him. How many times in his life will he run into the wall? Will this moment give him the fortitude he needs to persevere when “life hands him lemons”? Will he give up on anything that he can’t master quickly?

I think about how I would answer those questions. It’s hard not knowing what comes next, always feeling like a “newbie.” Every time I sit down. to write, I feel this way. When will this ever come together, I wonder. Running into this boy is a life lesson, a reminder to relish the the beginner’s mind. I love this guest post on Leo Babauta’s Zen Habits in which Mary Jaksch writes that beginner’s mind “leaves room for intuition.” Being a beginner isn’t a bad thing. If we can allow ourselves to not worry about being perfect, being a beginner gives us the opportunity to be a state of wonder and learning,

The boy’s mother collects his helmet and bike and puts her arm around his shoulder. She’s trying to build up his confidence. I hope she’s also telling him to enjoy the beginner’s mind.

 

When was the last time you had “beginner’s mind”? 

Have a wonderful weekend, everyone! 

 

The One With the Mermaids

On the summer solstice each year, Coney Island transforms itself from a crazy, depraved, whimsical amusement park into a crazy, depraved, whimsical amusement park crawling with scantily-clad party-goers. That’s right, dear readers. It’s time for the Mermaid Parade!

The Mermaid Parade winds its way along Coney Island’s main drag (pun intended) and spills onto the boardwalk. It’s been going on for 30 years and has grown to more than 1,500 participants. Officially, it’s billed as an art parade, “a celebration of ancient mythology and honky-tonk rituals of the seaside…opening the summer with incredible art, entrepreneurial spirit and community pride.” Unofficially, the Mermaid Parade is a romping good time where people get sunburns in places where people shouldn’t get sunburns.

Without further ado, here are some photos from years past. Heads-up: apparently mermaids spend a lot of their mer-cash on pasties and fishnets.

Mermaid Parade

 

Mermaid Parade

 

 

Mermaid Parade

 

 

Mermaid Parade

 

Mermaid Parade

 

Mermaid Parade

 

Mermaid Parade

 

Mermaid Parade

 

 

Mermaid Parade

 

Mermaid Parade

 

 

Mermaid Parade

 

Mermaid Parade

 

Mermaid Parade

 

How will you be spending the summer solstice? 

Have a great weekend, everyone! 

 

 

The One With the Electrodes

Going to Book Expo America (BEA) without a plan is like going to a Jimmy Choo sample sale. You might get a pair of $400 shoes for 20 bucks, or you might get a stiletto to the throat when you’re taken down by a Carrie Bradshaw look-alike. I discovered this the hard way.

It was early morning and BEA had reconvened for day two of its annual trade show. I was chatting with the good folks at Globe Pequot Press about e-books. What I didn’t notice is someone lying in wait for me one booth over.

I grabbed a business card and a few samples and stowed them in my bag, which was already getting heavy. A book nerd like me finds it difficult to rein in the urge to take more than she can carry. There was a long day ahead and hundreds of booths to visit. In fact my shoulder already ached, so I switched my bag to the other side. Right on cue:

“Books get heavy!” said a man wearing a spiffy suit and tie. “Too bad we’re not in the feather business.” He threw back his head in a hearty chortle.

I wasn’t sure what to make of this comment, so I nodded, already heading to the next aisle where Bloomsbury had their booth.

“I have just the thing for you!” he said.

This was starting to feel like a bad infomercial. Made even worse by the fact that it was in person and it wasn’t two a.m. Suddenly I felt two little cool patches at the base of my neck.

“What is that?” I asked, still not as alarmed as I probably should have been. BEA is overwhelming and this just felt like part of it.

He showed me a small device that looked like an iPod. “Now I just turn it on.” He clicked a few times and the little patches began to pulse. “It’s a mini massage!” If this guy’s existence were a punctuation, he would be an exclamation mark.

The pulses were getting stronger and my right shoulder began to twitch involuntarily. It was not an enjoyable sensation. It was weird and it was starting to hurt.

“Oh, I forgot to ask,” the guy said, shaking his head and smiling as an afterthought. “You don’t have a pacemaker, do you?”

I wished I could have channeled Bruce Lee to give this guy a swift roundhouse kick to the head. “Turn this thing off.”

He made a feeble attempt by jabbing at the device. “It’s only $200! Doesn’t that sound like a bargain?”

“Get these things off.”

“Okay. For you $150.”

“Dude.”

“Two for $150! Share with a friend.”

Here was where I shouted a few expletives and ripped the little patches off my shoulders.

Apparently I fell into the carefully laid trap of the “massage” guy because I didn’t have a plan. I thought I’d just wander around the booths, stopping to talk to people I knew and generally taking in all the excitement. And there was a lot of excitement. BEA is always held in the Javits Center which is four city blocks long on the west side of Manhattan. There are hundreds of booths, each one vying for your attention. Subtlety is not an asset here.

BEA

Um, where?

But, like getting the great deal on those Jimmy Choos, sometimes not having a plan worked in my favor. I was walking past a long line of people when I overheard someone ask if this was for the Colm Toibin signing. Colm Toibin? Here? I hopped on to the end of the line. We snaked through the aisles. Before long the woman in front of me waxed poetic about a book as people tend to do at book shows.

“Have you read All the Light We Cannot See? It’s one of my favorite books of all time,” Lorraine said.

“You are the second person to say that in as many days.”  (Read Jennifer Lyn King’s review here.)

“Oh, and this one.” She held up an advance reader copy of Painted Horses. She went on to describe the story and the beautiful prose. Lorraine was also kind enough to give me her exhibit hall map and clue me into her BEA strategy, which was three pages long.

When I got to meet Colm Toibin I told him how much I enjoyed his book, Brooklyn, and that I was looking forward to the movie coming out this fall. Granted, it wasn’t as exciting as when I scratched David Sedaris’s back, but at least I didn’t make a complete fool of myself (which I usually do).

Here is an entertaining clip from Colm Toibin’s speech at BEA. He says that if you’re a writer, the best thing someone can do for you is to tell you half a story. Half a story can live in your imagination. You can turn it over in your mind, expanding it and molding it.  Half a story allows you to ask, “What if?”  What he says at the end about the promises writers make to readers in the space between the words is wonderful.

Without further ado, a photo round up from the day:

BEA

Creative advertising

BEA

Excuse me, Mr. Stormtrooper. Can you tell me where to get a sandwich less than $12?

BEA

This banner is bigger than my apartment.

Hey, girlfriend! I haven't seen you since the 1100 block.

Hey, girlfriend! I haven’t seen you since the 1100 block.

Booths for some of the larger publishers.

Booth for Wiley, one of the larger publishing houses.

 

Author autographing area. Sorry this one is blurry -- people were on the move.

One of the author autographing areas. Sorry this one is blurry — people were on the move.

Have you ever been to BEA, or a book conference? What did you most / least enjoy?

Have a great weekend, everyone!