Friday, December 31, 2010

The Last Bus Ride of 2010

I had to run down to the Apple store this morning (my MacBook Pro is getting wonky), and on the way back I took the M104 up Broadway.

It’s was a sunny morning here in Gotham, and the bus was a lovely way to go, much better than the dank darkness of the underground. Thinking about this being the last day of the first decade of the new millennium led my thoughts to drift philosophical as the bus slowly made it’s way and a part of the stream of humanity got on and got off.

I’ve run into the idea of “being on the bus” as a metaphor for life in various places. A priest once likened coming to terms with death as simply that you reach your stop, and you get off the bus of life. This was echoed in a Fraiser episode, of all things. In the episode “The Dog That Rocks the Cradle,” Fraiser and Niles want Martin to plan his funeral. He says no, “You don’t pull the chord on the bus until you’re ready to get off.” Hmm. Did the writers hear that same sermon?

The tv series House also used the bus as the transition from here to hereafter. It was in “Wilson’s Heart,” when Amber pieces together how she came to be terminal in the hospital, she says, “I shouldn’t have gotten on the bus.” This is literal, because the bus was in an accident, but it had the overtone of a more philosophical idea of what you can and can’t control in your life as you travel along.

There was something else on the bus that triggered the end-of-year reverie: a woman was eating Good and Plenty. I haven’t even seen a box of G&P in years. And my mind searched for the old commercial song (which must have been played to the early seventies): Charlies says, Love my Good and Plenty; Charlie says, Really rings the bell.”

From childhood Saturday mornings to being on a bus on the great street, Broadway.

I really don’t know where my bus is headed, or where or when that last stop will be. But the journey is never dull, and you can’t ask for more than that.

Monday, December 27, 2010

"The frolic architecture of the snow"

New York has seen two large snow storms this year, the one in February, that had an O. Henry twist for me, and the Boxing Day Blizzard. This one was particularly cruel to travelers, who had been given an extra travel day with Christmas on a Saturday. Now if they get out by New Year's they'll be happy.

As a city dweller with no car (and no need to fly anywhere!), I could enjoy all the drama and beauty of the storm without the inconvenience.

My roof garden--with its beachwood table sets--looks like a Hampton's sand dune!

The side streets with the parked cars get the brunt of the effects. Both because they don't get plowed and they don't get direct sun.

New Yorkers were on the move: I still had to wait at the Apple Store at Broadway and 67 to get a new battery. But it was worth it to see an amazing curtain of ice---a true urban example of what Ralph Waldo Emerson called "the north wind's masonry"--that the storm had left on the side of the glass building.

The Snow Storm
Ralph Waldo Emerson

Announced by all the trumpets of the sky,
Arrives the snow, and, driving o'er the fields,
Seems nowhere to alight: the whited air
Hides hills and woods, the river, and the heaven,
And veils the farmhouse at the garden's end.
The sled and traveler stopped, the courier's feet
Delayed, all friends shut out, the housemates sit
Around the radiant fireplace, enclosed
In a tumultuous privacy of storm.

Come see the north wind's masonry.
Out of an unseen quarry evermore
Furnished with tile, the fierce artificer
Curves his white bastions with projected roof
Round every windward stake, or tree, or door.
Speeding, the myriad-handed, his wild work
So fanciful, so savage, nought cares he
For number or proportion. Mockingly,
On coop or kennel he hangs Parian wreaths;
A swan-like form invests the hidden thorn;
Fills up the farmer's lane from wall to wall,
Maugre the farmer's sighs; and, at the gate,
A tapering turret overtops the work.
And when his hours are numbered, and the world
Is all his own, retiring, as he were not,
Leaves, when the sun appears, astonished Art
To mimic in slow structures, stone by stone,
Built in an age, the mad wind's night-work,
The frolic architecture of the snow.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Doctor Who: Jumping the Christmas Shark?

And so it came to pass in these days, that a decree went out from BBC America that American fans of Doctor Who should not be kept waiting to see the annual Christmas episode until Easter, as they had been in days of old.

This was the first Christmas special with Steven Moffat as executive producer and Matt Smith as the Doctor: it was quite a pop cultural mashup.

The most obvious riff is the permutation on Dickens A Christmas Carol. Moffat added a twist of more far-reaching time travel, as the Doctor tries to change Scrooge/ Kazran by being his Ghost of Christmas Past and giving him a better past so that he will be a better person in the present and help a ship that’s in trouble.

I thought it was delightful, capturing a spirit of “Christmass-ness” in many ways, from the Doctor arriving via chimney, to the giddy joy of "Merry Christmas" that he and Kazran Jr. greet Abigail each Christmas Eve, to the Christmas Eve dinner they share with Abigail's sister’s family.

The mashups came as smaller plot points: the Doctor spending one Christmas Eve at Frank Sinatra’s lodge where he becomes engaged to Marilyn Monroe; the bridge of the spaceship that’s in danger looking a lot like the Enterprise; Abigail (the Welsh singer Katherine Jenkins) singing Holst’s "In the Bleak Midwinter."

But my favorite is that the “monster” of the episode is an enormous shark. When it tries to kill the Doctor and Kazran Jr. it looks like it’s straight out of Jaws---all that’s missing is a quip about needing a bigger boat (Moffat doesn’t seem to know that the line is de rigueur for that trope.)

But more than that, the Doctor tames the shark until it is dolphin-like, and then hooks him to a sleigh for a fanciful flight over faux Victorian London.

Hmm. We know that Moffat chafes at all the Russell Davies particulars that he inherited. In this episode he has the all powerful psychic paper short out-- with the “serious and mature adult credential” being a lie that is just TOO big for it--- and he chips away at the even more powerful sonic screwdriver, as the Doctor asks “what good is the screwdriver” when half is stuck in the shark.

Is it possible that Moffat resents needing to provide a special Christmas episode, which as Ross Ruediger pointed out to me, only started with the reboot? Methinks the flying shark would suggest so. You just don't get to use a shark as a character without the "jumping the" baggage. Moffat, a consummate tv writer, would know that.

Nonetheless, even with the playful jibe, he has added a memorable episode to the Doctor Christmas canon. Casting the great Michael Gambon was an enormous gift itself, as are the songs from Jenkins.

Friday, December 24, 2010

The Hopes and Fears of All the Years . . .

. . . are met in thee tonight, O little town of Bethlehem.

And the Word was made Flesh, bringing salvation. It's the human side that has led to centuries of anxiety and destruction. But not tonight.

Merry Christmas to all in whatever that merriment means to you.

Thoughts on Christmas Eve from the poet John Ciardi, from 1947.

Salvation's angel in a tree
Stared out at Blake, and stares at me
From zodiacs of colored bells,
And colored lights, and lighted shells,
A cherub's face above a sheet:
No arms, no torso, and no feet,
But winged and wired against the Fall,
And a paper halo over all-
A nineteen-hundred-year-old doll
In a drying tree. What does it see?

The house is sleeping; there's only me
In the cellophane snow by the lethal toys
That wait all night for the eager boys:
Metal soldiers, an Indian suit,
Raider's tools, and gunner's loot.
I mash my cigarette, and good night,
Turn off the angel and the light
On a single switch. The children toss
In excited sleep. Alone in the house,
I feel the old, confusing wind
Shake the dark tree and shake my mind,
Hearing tomorrow rattle and bang
Louder than all the angels sang.
By feel, I lower the thermostat
And pick my way through a creaking flat,
The demon children, the angel doll,
Sleep in two darks off one dark hall,
I move through darkness memorized,
Feeling for doors.

One half-surprised
Wish stays lit inside my head.
I leave it on and go to bed.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

The Very Best Christmas Movie: The Thin Man!

Much of the sparkle and fun of Christmas is for children, even after Santa fades into parents.

But one great bauble for grown-up holiday spirits is the 1934 film The Thin Man. I don’t know why it isn’t on best Christmas movie lists across the land.

The oddly non-eponymous series (the Thin Man was actually the victim Clyde Wynant, not Nick Charles) began with this first of the six films, set during the holidays. Nick and Nora Charles are pulled into solving a mystery, but their real talent is throwing a Christmas Eve party in their hotel room---is there anything more glamorous than the rich staying in a hotel suite over the holidays, complete with a Christmas tree?

Nicky’s old crime buddies hear he is town and stop by. The suavest of hosts, Nick glides around the room with a tray or martinis offering his guests “Ammunition.”

Nick: Do you want a drink?                          
Guest: No, I’m okay
Nick: Oh, that’s a mistake

 As the murder plot thickens, "Jingle Bells" is in the background, the gang sings a blurry “O Christmas Tree,” and Nora, in a chic dress with a candy-cane motif, calls down to the concierge to send up sandwiches for everyone.

After the party a thug comes by with a gun and Nick is grazed by a bullet. Scene up, Christmas morning. The Charles’s have opened their gifts. Nora is sitting in her new mink coat, Nick is recuperating on the couch, playing with his air gun, firing at the balloons on the Christmas tree. Their banter sparkles amid the gift wrappings. It’s a lovely scene.

Surely Nick and Nora Charles should be seen as much a part of the cinematic fabric of Christmas as that Bailey clan.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

A New Gerund Enters My Life

Rolfing. And two new nouns: facia/myofascial system, and structural integration.

The verb is not the sophomoric slang for vomiting. It comes from Ida Rolf, an extraordinary if mysterious woman, born in the Bronx in 1896. She graduated Barnard in 1916, and then from Columbia University of Physicians and Surgeons with a doctorate in biochemistry. Beyond that, details of her life are extremely vague. Somewhere along the line she sustained an injury. One site said it was a horseback riding accident, and that she used her knowledge to find ways to heal herself. Somehow that grew into a practice called structural integration, nicknamed after its founded and then copyrighted.

“Dr. Ida Rolf developed Structural Integration, in the 1950s, a holistic system of soft tissue manipulation and movement education based on yoga with the goal of balancing the body by stretching the skin in oscillatory patterns. She discovered that she could change the body posture and structure by stretching the myofascial system.“

I went to a Structural Integration therapist as on outgrowth of my Pilates work. I’m having trouble with some of the movements, and the root of the trouble was structural: how my pelvis is tilting, how my shoulders sit, things like that that aren't so obvious to the casual observer. My muscles are also very tight, but what I learned is that it’s really the facia that’s tight.

Ida’s system is a 10-part series of manipulations. The Rolfer applies a lot of pressure deep into the facia, the amazing fibrous tissue that connects everything in your body. That intense pressure releases the facia that is tight or even foreshortened from chronic tension; that then allows muscles and bones to return a more optimal alignment.

“They say,” the body adapts, but remembers. I’ve been plagued by extreme emotions my whole life. I’ve had to submerge them in order to be able to simply live day to day without medication. I know that some of that intensity burrowed into my body. Every disappointment, and there have been some whoppers, also knotted some of that connective tissue a little tighter, and then tighter, and then tighter over the years. The Rolfer sees that as overstimulation.

“Put another way, Rolfing allows the brain and nervous system to “re-boot” areas of the body that are receiving too much electrical stimulation (chronically tight or sore muscles). And once a healthy level of muscle contraction is established, someone’s entire structure is free to express a pain-free form.”

I’m up to #4 in the 10-part series, (which will actually be 12 to work on jaw and neck tension.) It’s not a panacea. I’m skeptical that anything I do reset won’t just fall back into old ways. But I’m open to possibilities. And that may be the most important element of this process.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Right Place, Right Time

Our bartender friend Scribbler of Behind the Stick has an amazing story up at his place, recounting his cosmic experience of going to Elaine’s last Friday, following the news of her death. It has to do with a key lost, and a key returned. Go visit to read his strangely magical tale.

His story reminded me of a time when the universe put me in a very specific place, at a very specific time, in order to help someone I didn’t know.

(Time Tunnel music up here.)

October 3, 1995
Does anyone remember that date?

It was the day the jury came back with the verdict in the O.J. Simpson trial.

I watched the verdict on TV at work, with literally half the population of the U.S. (according to Wiki).

The media played up that there was “concern” that there might be rioting in the city over the verdict. The details are now fuzzy in my head, but I think I decided it was as good of a reason as any to go out to Long Island to see my mom.

I think I left work a little early, and I walked down to Penn Station. Which meant that to get to my train I was going down the main, big staircase at 7th avenue and 33rd street. It was a little early for rush hour, but hundreds and hundreds of people were already streaming down those steps.

And that’s when it happened.

Going down the stairs I was behind a man in his sixties, grey hair, wearing a red plaid chub jacket and grey pants. Midway down I saw a basic number 10 envelope fall out of his back pocket. I picked it up and taped him on the shoulder.

He turned around and looked at me, then looked down at the envelope.

“Oh my God,” he said. “Thank you for returning that to me. I can’t lose that.”

It’s not what he said, but the way he said it. There was sheer terror and exaggerated relief in his eyes at the same time.

We were stopped for a nanosecond on the steps as the crush of commuters flowed around us. The energy between us was so strange, so odd: as I handed the envelope to him I felt that like I was literally handing his life back to him.

I really can’t imagine what was in the envelope. It wasn’t flat, it felt like it had several pages in it. It crossed my mind that if it was so important, what was it doing in his back pocket?

It was the briefest of encounters, but it has haunted me a bit since then. It may be that the action of getting that envelope back into that man’s hands is the single most significant thing I will ever do on this earth. That’s okay with me.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

I Would Follow Bergdof's Anywhere

My own official kickoff of the Christmas season begins with my visit to the windows at Bergof’s. Midtown is so glutted with tourists that it took me almost 15 minutes to make the 5 blocks journey north on 5th Avenue between my office and BGs.

The arduous trek was well worth it. The theme of the windows this year is one near and dear to my heart: TRAVEL.

They’re called “Wish You Were Here,” and David Hoey’s signature wildly sophisticated vistas are visual meditations on the romance of different modes of travel: train, ship, mythological Pegasus; "day tripper" to the stars; hot air balloon; and Chitty-Chitty Bang Bang-like jalopy; as well as fantastic features of stunning ensembles with globes and maps. The zodiac pops up in various windows as part of the detail of the heavens.

Each window really is a masterpiece of art and design. The ultimate holiday windows for grownups.

What I also like about them is the “making of” video that Bergdof produced uses the song “Follow Me” by 17-year old Audrianna Cole. She’s the aural cousin of Pamplamoose, the other holiday go-to group this year (you know, those Hyundai commercials). Cole’s song is a nice echo of Twitter’s constant entreaty, and thoughts that travelers often have about loved ones who are nontravellers: Why don’t you follow me?

TV Imitating My Life

After my Bergdof’s visit I caught an episode of CSI: New York, which I never watch. But the plot was that Gary Sinises and Sela Ward go see the unveling of a department store’s holiday windows. And they see a pickpocket working the crowd, lifting wallets while people’s attention is focused on the windows.

That exact thing happened to me!! The ONLY time I have had my pocket picked in Gotham was many years ago, while I was looking at the windows of Lord & Taylor. I was working down on Wall Street at the time, but a meeting brought me to 42 street, and so I took the opportunity to see the windows. I felt so stupid. I live here, I’m supposed to know better. So this year I was extra careful and alert, and I left Bergdof’s with wallet and spirits intact.