21 June 2017

new york, so far.

In the interests of not kicking off my stay in New York with a huge blogging backlog, here’s a somewhat condensed overview of what I’ve been up to so far. As alluded to in the previous post, much of the first two weeks was given over to the myriad joys of moving in. The boyfriend had to furnish the apartment almost entirely from scratch, which involved making a few trips to IKEA, chasing down pre-owned furniture via Craigslist (figuring out how to transport a large bookcase down twenty city blocks is a fun bonding experience for a couple), and undertaking more home improvement projects than you ever thought a simple studio apartment could entail. When the bulk of that labour was completed, though, we had days/evenings during which we could set out and get better acquainted with this place.

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The best way, I think, to really begin to know New York – or any large city, for that matter – is simply to walk around it until one’s feet will have no more of it, then to keep going. On our third full day in the city, we set moving responsibilities aside temporarily and went on a long and mostly unscripted stroll through Lower Manhattan. Some of the sights were familiar, others were new, but the overall experience felt like a most suitable inauguration to life around here.

east village.
washington square park.
tribeca.
manhattan borough president's office.
new york city hall.
one world trade center.
oculus.

Eventually, we ended up at Lombardi’s for dinner, where, over what was admittedly an exceptionally delicious pie, I was introduced to the seriousness with which New Yorkers take their pizza.

lombardi's pizza.

I made the mistake of remembering that McNally Jackson is in the same neighbourhood, wandered over there, and left with Édouard Louis’s The End of Eddy in hand. Thus did my pledge to abstain from buying books this summer and rely entirely on the New York Public Library for reading material die an quick and ignoble death.

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I accompanied the boyfriend on one of his trips to the IKEA in Brooklyn. Getting there is something of an epic poem, to quote one particular fictional Manhattanite, so, to make the experience more memorable, we undertook part of the journey via water taxi. Not only is it free on the weekends, but it also boasts some rather spectacular views.

downtown manhattan.
downtown manhattan.
statue of liberty.

This particular excursion highlighted for me something I discussed in my previous post regarding the sudden compression of my personal geographic scale. In Ithaca, if I found myself facing the urgent lack of a coffee table, I would simply hop in my car, drive the fifteen minutes from my apartment to the Target in Lansing, purchase aforementioned table, throw it in the trunk, and drive back, all without a moment’s hesitation. No such carefree transactions existed here: getting to IKEA required an hour, our combined manpower constrained what we could feasibly lug back to the apartment, and the combined expenditure on subway and Uber fare would have been enough to cover a decent lunch for one. It was enough to make me see why so many do reach the end of their line with city living and flee for the more spacious & forgiving living conditions beyond. (This is not not a novel observation, of course but a younger, more pigheadedly idealistic version of me would probably have held that decision in contempt whereas I felt rather more empathetic towards it now. In general, I don’t like living in the middle of nowhere, but it does have its conveniences.)

But then I think of the shimmering mass of metal and glass falling into focus above the East River and what a wonder it is that man was able to root such buildings into the earth of this unassuming island, and I think of the Statue of Liberty and how many symbolisms weigh upon that ever raised arm, and it becomes no surprise at all that this is where the aspirations of millions should congregate – where else could they go?

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I will never not be amazed at the many different worlds that this city sustains. We spent one evening in the East Village, which, even in the face of pervasive gentrification, retains a rather “hip” aura, where self-styled artisanal eateries and old tenement housing turned desirable yuppie accommodations meet dreadlocked, free-spirit types camped out in a circle on the sidewalk. Against this background, we enjoyed ramen at Ippudo (excellent, though I still go to bed at night dreaming of the noodles I had at Ichiran in Tokyo), grabbed drinks at the Sly Fox in the Ukrainian Village (where, for the price of a latte hand crafted from shade-grown beans, one could get a shot of whiskey and a PBR in a flimsy plastic cup), and topped it all off with ice cream at Van Leeuwen (pricey but oh so good).

ippudo.
sly fox.

The next day, we ventured north instead of south to undeniably posh surroundings of the Upper East Side. We went to Bluestone Lane for some caffeinated libations. Located in the space of an old church and filled with marble tabletops graced by succulents, it was one of the most beautifully appointed (and eminently #instagramworthy) cafes I had ever seen. I sipped on a matcha latte – made with almond milk, natch – at a table shared with a mother-daughter pair, both of them impeccably blond and the parent appearing little older than the child, who could have walked right out of the pages of Gossip Girl.

bluestone lane.
bluestone lane.

We had designs to visit the Neue Galerie that day as part of the Museum Mile Festival, but who knew that lowering the price of a good to zero could increase quantity demanded so much?

museum mile festival.
museum mile festival.

Instead, we settled for a walk through Central Park – hardly a poor alternative.

central park.
central park.

We stumbled across some benches where someone had left behind a little knitted toy cat that appeared to be in the process of surveying the adjacent path. I found the tableau impossibly cute, so we sat down near it to do some reading. Perhaps it’s just my penchant for forming emotional connections to stuffed animals at work, but I’d like to imagine that the cat spends its days roaming through the grounds, making only the briefest of appearances in the presence of human beings before darting off for the cover of nearby bushes.

central park catto.
central park catto.

18 June 2017

small town grad student in the big city.

washington square park.

This won’t be a surprise to anyone to whom I’ve spoken to lately or who follows me on Instagram or Twitter, but I might as well make it blog official: I’ve moved to New York City for the summer!

A rather fortuitous confluence of circumstances made this temporary relocation possible. The boyfriend, having run all up and down the east coast – and then some – for residency interviews, has ended up here for at least the next three years. Meanwhile, I find myself in the position of not being physically bound to Ithaca this summer and requiring only my laptop, an internet connection, and a place to sit for the purposes of my research (though those are necessary and not sufficient conditions for progress). Since New York is many magnitudes more happening than Ithaca and opportunities to shelve the long distance aspect of this relationship are rare, it seemed silly not to make the most of this one.

I’ve been here for almost two weeks now and, at this point, am more or less settled in. I had rather arrogantly presumed that reacclimating myself to life in a large metropolitan centre would involve less of a discontinuity that there actually was. After all, did I not live in Washington, DC for five years, and have I not visited New York many times in the past? The District of Columbia, however, is at best a large village compared to New York, and making a day or weekend trip to the latter is a vastly different proposition from giving oneself over to it entirely. My four-year exile in the great wilds upstate had gradually altered my sense of geography, and planting myself in the heart of Manhattan reversed that process with startling rapidity. Extended sojourns in the car during which I would see more cows than humans have been replaced by the uncouth madhouse that is any given city block here, and the prospect of travelling through (or under) it for than a few miles fills me with premature fatigue. A single square mile of Manhattan contains, on average, the population of two Ithacas. When my cousins from China visited New York last fall, even they could not help but be astonished by the sheer mass of people milling about – and they grew up in Shanghai.

But I’ll take the concrete jungle over rolling farmland any day and, to put it mildly, I’m pretty psyched to see what adventures it has in store.

10 May 2017

revisiting 1789: on simon schama's citizens.

Well, if nothing else, I can at least check resolution #4 off the list. I recently finished Simon Schama’s Citizens: A Chronicle of the French Revolution, which, as one of the preeminent popular histories of that whole affair, I have had in my possession for almost a decade but only began reading in February. It had been many years since I last read a history of the French Revolution, my first true intellectual love, and it was interesting to perceive how my responses to Schama’s work were intermediated both by a lingering nostalgia for the historically inflected idealism of my youth and the large body of reading I’ve done since that has by and large disabused me of (or at least significantly tempered) that idealism.

(Aside: By “first true intellectual love,” what I mean is that I remember reading some anodyne picture book about the French Revolution and also watching the Wishbone adaptation of A Tale of Two Cities when I was in elementary school, and all of that lingered in my memory long enough such that I enrolled in a course called Great Revolutions when it came time to ship off to CTY the summer before I started high school. Covering the French Revolution, Marxism, and the Russian Revolution, that course has a good claim to being the genesis of every academic interest I’ve nursed since, including, of course, economics, which I at some point chose as my professional calling. Essentially, I wouldn’t be a quarter of the person I am today had I not studied the French Revolution with all the starry-eyed wonder of a thirteen year-old who believed that a better world was possible if we could just make it so.)

Though Schama purports to have written the story of the Revolution free of any theoretical edifice disciplining the events recounted within that reduces them to the manifestations of some impersonal teleology or structure at work, his book is far from neutral. Over the course of some 800 pages, he advances two main arguments. The first is that violence was inherent to the very progression and objectives of the French Revolution and not some aberration from it or a phenomenon merely confined to the Jacobins’ virtuous terror. Not much to argue with here, though implying an equivalence between the riots of hungry peasants with state-sanctioned murder of political opponents is a touch sloppy.

The second is that the French Revolution ushered in less change than is commonly supposed. (The subtext is that all this violence couldn’t even properly midwife a world of equality among men, so why have bothered with it in the first place?) To bolster this thesis, Schama devotes around a fourth of the book to detailing the reformist agendas of King Louis XVI’s various ministers, driving home the fact that France of the late 18th century was not the impoverished and hidebound domain that the term ancien regime conjures within the imagination. He notes that the initial impetus for political upheaval came not from the dregs of the Third Estate but rather within the nobility itself, and he never tires of observing that the demands of the masses were often less radical than they were reactionary, cries for state protection against the vicissitudes of modernity instead of clamours for individual liberty and the sovereignty of the people. All of that can be true – indeed, for all of Schama’s strenuous efforts to appear counterintuitive, his supporting points are not even a little surprising to anyone with a modicum of knowledge about how politics works – without being a conclusive case for some fundamental continuity of French history through the Revolution.

Here in particular, I found Schama’s scope of analysis disappointingly narrow. No revolution in the history of mankind has ever immediately altered the real, lived-in conditions of the people writ large, at least not to the extent to which the revolutionaries themselves promise and their opponents protest. Change of this nature simply does not occur with that kind of rapidity (see, e.g., Eugen Weber’s Peasants into Frenchmen: The Modernization of Rural France, 1870-1914). On the contrary, it would seem to me that the defining characteristic of a revolution – its lifeblood and its legacy, one that will prove more enduring than any political, economic, or social agenda it may advance – is its ideology. It recasts the world in its own image, illuminating it within its own language. The very parameters of the questions that can be asked and the set of answers considered permissible shift. The revolution, in this way, makes itself indispensable and irreversible, for nothing that follows could be understood or even discussed if it were to be removed from history. Nothing can change, yet everything changes.

Is a studiously objective account of the French Revolution possible? Is it even desirable? While reading this book, I occasionally thought back to something that Tony Judt said in Thinking the Twentieth Century, which was that, as a historian, he was once preoccupied by why things happened, but, as his career progressed, he felt more strongly that the historian’s primary responsibility was to see things as they are – the implication being, of course, that this was much easier said than done. Yet Judt himself wrote histories that were seared through with moral judgement, so “objectivity” as such cannot be what he meant. What he was really calling for, I think, was a sense of authorial integrity. It seems folly to think that anyone can check his or her biases at the door entirely when approaching a topic like the French Revolution, given the strong passions it arouses to this day, and the art of writing about history (or anything else, really) is the negotiation, conscious or otherwise, of where the self and its experiences end and the object of its actions and thoughts begins and the subsequent honesty to say, “This is how I drew the line.”

Where Citizens failed for me, as a work of history, was the absence of this integrity. In the book’s prologue, Schama claims to have undertaken an “exercise in animated description...without any pretense of definitive closure,” yet that description is bracketed with such charged modifiers and subjunctive clauses that it cannot be interpreted in any way other than how he intends it to be interpreted. His approach to the Revolution is Burkean to its core – the disdain for its “Events and Persons” practically wafts off the page – and it would be a perfectly plausible reading of the events of 1789 if he could just own up to it rather than hide behind the shibboleth of chronicle. (Besides, what chronicle of the French Revolution ends in 1795 when the end of the Revolution is typically given to be 1799 and a very strong argument can be made for including a certain Corsican general in the tale as well?) His posture is self-consciously revisionist – “I alone can stand athwart the tyranny of conventional wisdom and elucidate for you, Poor Befuddled Reader, what really happened” – but the novelty of his insights struck me as greatly overstated.

By way of postscript, I should note that, ironically, Citizens did not even quite live up to expectations from a storytelling perspective. Schama does place Great Men (and some Women) at the centre of his tale, but they remain like figures in a Jacques-Louis David painting, imperious and removed. They are people in the strictest sense of the word, but they have no heart. But perhaps I should not be too harsh: Citizens was not any less disappointing than other popular histories of the French Revolution I’ve read over the years. Truth be told, my honours for the most compelling evocation, historical or otherwise, of the Revolution still belong to Hilary Mantel’s novel A Place of Greater Safety. Something something, fiction being truer to life than fact, something something.

29 April 2017

mix: sunshine escape.

I started assembling this playlist a few days before I went to Jacksonville. As its title suggests, it was meant to be the soundtrack to my temporary respite from the long reign of Ithaca’s winter, and its sound is largely inspired by the sun-drenched, retro stylings of The Knocks’ single “Classic,” but the mix took a bit longer to come together than expected. Perhaps that isn’t the worst outcome, though, as it might finally just be getting warm for good here in upstate New York. Possibly. Maybe.

ambergris caye.
sunshine escape
download

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  1. Foster the People – Coming Of Age
  2. Surfer Blood – Island
  3. The Knocks – Classic (featuring Powers)
  4. Passion Pit – Where The Sky Hangs
  5. Raphael Saadiq – Stone Rollin’
  6. Phoenix – Fences
  7. Local Natives – Airplanes
  8. Broken Social Scene – Stars And Sons
  9. Charli XCX – What I Like
  10. Carly Rae Jepsen – Fever
  11. Belle and Sebastian – The Blues Are Still Blue
  12. Japandroids – True Love And A Free Life Of Free Will

16 April 2017

seasonal migration.

This year, I performed the storied American tradition of fleeing to Florida during my spring break. It was welcome refuge from both the cold, which can have a mercilessly prolonged reign over upstate New York, and the meteorological volatility that tends to characterise springtime around here. And it helped that the boyfriend happened to be doing a rotation in Jacksonville at the time. As the adage goes, don’t look a fortuitous scheduling coincidence in the mouth.

I had been to Florida a number of times before without any sense of having actually seen the state, my previous destinations (Disney World, the Everglades, and Key West) being more like enclaves of interest that exist in spite of the surrounding whole. As I get older, I am finding that domestic travel is making me more cognisant of the wide regional variations otherwise obscured by the American penumbra. This particular corner of Florida – I didn’t know this until I went, but Jacksonville, located in the northeastern corner of the state, is actually its largest city – was as flat and wide as the eye could see, the land regulated by a clockwork of interstate highways. There were RVs, sports cars, and old people abound. It was hot and sunny, consistently so, and, when it did rain, it stormed with such ferocity that I half feared the earth would crumble to bits and dissolve into the ocean. The locals to whom I spoke all seemed a touch friendlier and sociable than I would have expected (e.g., there was a cashier at Trader Joe’s who went out of his way to give us food and sightseeing recommendations after we had finished paying for our groceries that I wondered if he was working on commission for the local tourism bureau). Florida is not of the Deep South is my understanding, but Jacksonville is not far from the border with Georgia and culture is rarely exhibits discontinuities at such boundaries.

Amateur anthropological observations aside, I enjoyed a holiday in the truest sense of the term. I am often guilty of trying to make my travels as edifying as possible, but it must be said that bumming around on beaches, floppy hat and sunglasses in tow, for the better part of two days is quite nice too. I’ve little idea how Jacksonville’s beaches rank relative to others in Florida; as someone whose only recourse while growing up was the Jersey Shore, though, I have no complaints in this regard.

We spent one day on Fernandina Beach on Amelia Island, home to genteel old houses and a cute oceanside town. We stayed long enough to catch the sunset because, like, why not be completely trite when on vacation?

amelia island.
amelia island.
lulu's at the thompson's house.
fernandina beach.
fernandina beach.

Somewhat more substantial adventures were had the following day. When scouting around for things to do in Jacksonville, I happened upon the Wikipedia page for the nearby city of St. Augustine and learned that it carries the distinction of being the oldest continuously occupied European-established settlement in the continental United States. So, obviously, I added it to our itinerary. Our first stop was St. Augustine Bike Rentals, where we picked up two svelte fixed-gear bikes to get us around for the rest of the day. They proved ideal for navigating the tangle of small streets that thread through St. Augustine’s Old Town, which, with its cobblestone paving and squat, colourful buildings, abounded with historical charm. (The plethora of tourists was less charming – and I acknowledge the hypocrisy of pointing that out – but what is there to be done?)

st. augustine.
popsicle break.

Some landmarks of note that we saw were Flagler College, whose campus is largely centred on a Gilded Age-era hotel –

flagler college.
flagler college.

– and Castillo de San Marcos, the oldest masonry fort in the Lower 48. We didn’t pay to go inside, but cycling around what had been the moat was completely free! It was extremely reminiscent of the forts that I visited in San Juan, Puerto Rico – not a surprise at all, given both cities’ origins in Spain’s colonial enterprises.

castillo de san marcos.
castillo de san marcos.

After a quick coffee and lunch break at The Kookaburra (aside: if you’re going to name your coffee shop after a species of Australian wildlife, why would you ever choose anything that isn’t a quokka?), we crossed over the Bridge of Lions –

bridge of lions.

– and biked for a few miles until we got to Anastasia State Park, where, for a nominal entrance fee, a rather pristine white-sand beach and hours of insouciant lounging, interspersed with jaunts into the waves, awaited. Miraculously, I made it through with only a few, and thankfully discreet, sunburns.

anastasia state park.
anastasia state park.
anastasia state park.
anastasia state park.
anastasia state park.

As the sun began to set, we rode back to Old Town for dinner, locked up our bikes, and sauntered down St. George Street, its main pedestrian thoroughfare.

st. george st.
st. george st.
st. george st.
st. george st.
old city gates.
oldest wooden schoolhouse.

I should note, by way of both disclosure and conclusion, that going to the beach has never been on my list of favourite things to do. I am more liable to find lying facedown on a beach towel as the sun roasts my skin to a delicate shade of scarlet an occasion for panic rather than relaxation, am strongly resistant to being tan (“deathly pale graduate student” being, after all, my #aesthetic), and have always been annoyed by the sand’s unerring ability to find its way into every known crevice of clothing (and some unknown ones too). At the risk of engaging in some unwarranted over-analysis – totally unprecedented in the history of this blog – I might infer that my dislike of the beach stems is just a specific manifestation of a more general aversion to dirt and messiness, to things being out of place. With that having been said, as our seaside excursions wound to an end, my mind and body suffused with the sort of tired contentment that only a day out and about can induce, I thought that I had succeeded after all at setting that prissier side of my personality aside for a time and that bottling up a bit of that sun-kissed, windswept magic to bring back north with me might not be the worst idea.