Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Remaking the world

I've always been a believer that out of scarcity grows creativity. And there's no denying these are scarce times. Things around here range from re-use to reinvention to plain old civil disobedience. But every time I catch something I haven't seen before, 'Is that what I think it is?' gives way to 'Why didn't I think of that?'

One of our most prolific interventionists was tragically murdered nearly a year ago, just blocks from where we live. But the ongoing efforts to claim, beautify, and complicate space show that he was part of a much larger conversation. What you see here is a small sampling from a 6-block radius.

(an old ladder turned on its side becomes a fence)

(it's a bike, and someone rode it there)

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Tender mercies

A few weeks ago I wrote about my white-noise machine, which -- more than herbal remedies or prescription drugs, more than kicking caffeine or reading in bed -- has overcome my insomnia problem, at least for now.

There are times I still wake up in the night, of course. And some of those times I'll get fixated on a racket outside. Most often it's the unmistakable thump of a boom box. I'll train my ear and continue to listen, trying to discern whether it's really there or whether it's something I'm imposing on the whir of the machine. So I'll get up, turn off the switch, and invariably find it was a phantom noise after all. Back to sleep.

This morning I had the same experience, but instead of an obnoxious car stereo, it was the sound of Classical violins, which I have to believe says something good about my state of mind these days (or maybe about our local early-morning drivers). I didn't get out of bed. I let it ride.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

String them together like beads

I'm not the biggest fan of vegan dining, and even less so of sports bars. But somehow when you combine the two, the results are just shy of bewitching.

Sure, there were a few service glitches, and the place can't decide whether to call itself Stadium West or Dragon Lady. But we'll be back, because there may be no finer five words in the language than all-you-can-eat-bibimbap.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Welcome to the neighborhood!

See this house? It's just across the alley from us. William Jennings Bryan, Woodrow Wilson's Secretary of State and a three-time Democratic nominee for president, gave a speech there once, when there was nothing around but onion fields.

It seems deserving of something other than chaos, doesn't it? Something other than screaming matches in the backyard? Something other than beefy men with shaved heads lifting barbells on the front porch, as if to say, mess with me at your own peril? I've written about these folks before, and I can say with a clear conscience that while I wish them well, I do not miss them. The day they moved out was like a Christmas present.

Happily, there's a new tenant in that 1st-floor apartment. She's a morning person who drinks her coffee in the back window before the sun's even up (probably wigged out about that neighbor across the alley noticing what's going on in her window). She's a visible nerd with short, dark, curly hair who takes a morning jog in perfectly mismatched sweatshirts and sweatpants -- no fancy active wear for her. (She reminds me of someone I can't quite place . . . hmmm). At the risk of jinxing the odds, the summer promises much improvement.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Don't forget to look under the rocks

I haven't posted much, if at all, about the new job. And I guess that's because I was waiting for it to crystallize into something I could gush over, so my family and friends -- who've been so patient with my job laments over the years -- could finally get some relief from me. In truth, though, it's been a rocky road, probably the hardest thing I've ever done in my life. And after eight weeks of waiting for the waters to settle, the riptide warnings are still hard to miss.

It's not that I have a problem with hard work. I welcome it, actually. It's more that I fall short on the overall scorecard that I didn't realize came along with the position, at least in such pronounced ways. Cultural/racial identity: privileged, can't relate to discrimination. Religious leanings: insufficient, bordering on impiety. Zip code: outsider. Parenting status: null and void. Formal education: too much. Street smarts: not enough. You get the idea.

Now bear with this next digression, which I promise will lasso back by the end. Every morning I get off the train and walk about seven blocks to the office. My route forces me along two of the ugliest, busiest streets in the city: six lanes across, semis powering their way through traffic lights, lot after lot of chain-link fences, and the sidewalk chopped up to allow for car-wash entrances, fast-food drive-thrus, and gas stations. This footpath has become a sort of metaphor for the toughest aspects of my job, and I often let it demoralize me before I even walk through the door.

So the other day I decided, in the interest of my own endurance (because as trying as things may get on a given day, I still feel passion for the job and believe it's going to translate to meaningful work), I gave myself a challenge: If I can find beauty along this ungainly route, it's a sign that even my biggest hurdles are surmountable. If I can handle the task on a small scale, I can certainly tackle it when the stakes are highest. So I grabbed my camera and justified a 30-minute walk around the neighborhood.

This spiffy food truck was a good find not only for its general cheer, but also because it provides a lunchtime alternative to the cheap chop suey counter and local Subway sandwich shop.

This was once the storefront of what appears to be a defunct activist group. Those are sliced-up skateboard decks arched around the door.

This next one's a little hard to see, but in higher-rent districts, real estate signs often feature full-color photos of well-dressed realtors, just waiting to sell you a fancy loft in the next It neighborhood. Good old Israel Fuentes wanted the same effect but apparently couldn't afford it, so he went for a painted portrait instead (which is ironic, because the painting should probably be costlier than the photo).

Finally, I fell in love with these swanky foot pedals, part of a haul of musical equipment stacked up to be loaded into a van. Long story longer, I realized this job is going to be largely measured by what I make of it. If aspects are going poorly, I need to reposition myself to see things from a slightly different angle -- stand where the sun is reflecting off the windows or something. I can count on plenty of failures, I'm sure, but maybe some sporadic victories as well. As our good friend Justin, a labor organizer in NYC, reminded me: If it were easy, someone would have done it a long time ago.

Friday, March 6, 2009

Uh oh, I'm having one of those Andy Rooney moments

Can someone please explain to me a circulation librarian who stops to tsk and shake her head at the cover of one of the books you're checking out, which happens to feature a black-and-white photo of two nudes in boxing ring? And when you gently respond, 'Well, what can I say? It's art," and she says, "I wouldn't call that art. I'd call it strange," is that the kind of thing you're ever in the mood for? I'm thinking probably not.

[Original closing line edited to remove needless snarkiness, and because Lazy MF was right: this episode *was* more interesting for its unexpected weirdness].

Sunday, March 1, 2009

DIY for beginners

Hey, look what I made.

For what it's worth, glass blowing chafed against the controller in me. I melted or cracked as many pieces as I came home with. But along the way, I learned the basic melting process, how to keep the glass in a constant spin over the torch -- which is the key to maintaining a rounded shape -- and the signs the glass is ready to blow. Once I let my frustrations go (never an easy order for me), I ended up with a pretty decent haul, especially for the first outing.

Next class is March 22. Who's in?