September 2007

Don't tread on me

You have to love the directness of the First Navy Jack that hangs from the USS Constitution in the Charlestown Naval Shipyard on Boston’s Freedom Trail. “Don’t tread on me” is as clear a message of boundaries as you’d ever want; the uncoiled rattlesnake only underscores the message. When it comes to clarity, few have this flag beat.

Main deck, USS Constitution

Although for years I used to live in and around Boston, before today I’d never seen much less set foot on the Constitution, “don’t tread on them” apparently describing my (along with many Bostonians’) attitude toward the usual tourist sites. For good or ill, when you live in a tourist destination, you often put off visiting the usual must-sees.

One of the photo challenges J and I have agreed upon is to make a point of visiting (and photographing) the usual tourist sites. Just because you live in a tourist destination doesn’t mean you have to act like an indifferent local. In one of her chapters in Writing Down the Bones, Natalie Goldberg urges writers to act like “A Tourist in Your Own Town,” arguing that “Writers write about things that other people don’t pay much attention to.” I like this philosophy of being a close-to-home rubbernecker. Whether you live in Boston, Keene, or a place far-flung or in between, there are probably things in your own backyard that are worth noticing. If nothing else, you’ll never know until you go out and look for them.

USS Constitution

And so today J and I made our way via subway to and from Boston Harbor, sharing our first train with fans on their way to cheer the Red Sox and our next with fans on their way to see the Bruins. Near the World Trade Center, J & I toured an Argentinean tall ship whose Spanish-speaking cadets were toting brand-new computers and stereos aboard: the retail aftermath of a couple days’ shore leave. In Charlestown, we arrived too late for a guided tour of the Constitution, opting instead to board the ship, take some quick photos, and leave a proper tour to another day. As we boarded the Constitution, the security guards running the metal detectors were in good spirits, razzing one another (and me, because of my hat) over baseball rivalries. On the subway home, J & I encountered yet more Red Sox fans leaving the game. It was, after all, another typical Sunday in Boston: the kind of thing a tourist would travel miles to see.

UPDATE: Click here for a photo-set of images from La Libertad, the Argentinean tall ship J and I toured. Enjoy!

JFK Library

Most folks love autumn for its colorful foliage, but I love fall as much for the deep blue skies it brings. The sky is blue all year, of course…but in autumn it looks bluer. On Sunday, J and I visited the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library & Museum in Boston, and as we approached the I.M.-Pei-designed building on foot, I remarked how aesthetically appropriate it seemed to view a stark white building arching angularly into a solid block of blue.

Building on blue

Neither J nor I had been born when JFK was assassinated in 1963; neither one of us was even a proverbial sparkle in our respective daddy’s eye. Still, growing up Catholic in middle America, we both were raised in the mythic aftermath of All Things Kennedy. In my family at least, Jackie Kennedy (and later Jackie O) was considered by my mother as the quintessential feminine ideal, a woman who was simultaneously glamorous, maternal, devoted, and cultured. JFK, for his part, was held up as a masculine ideal: a President who was youthful, virile, and idealistic, the way America and Americans should be.


Later revelations about Kennedy’s marital infidelities and sometimes-shady politics did little to diminish the power of his myth. Convinced that John and Jackie really were as perfect as the image of Camelot would have us believe, my parents largely ignored evidence to the contrary. When my parents stopped voting after Ted Kennedy’s mishap at Chappaquiddick, the brunt of their blame was placed on the presumably hypocritical priests who had instructed their parishioners from the pulpit to vote for those Kennedy boys. Politics, my parents suggested, was too dirty a business to mix with religion, and surely all politicians are scoundrels. But JFK, conveniently dead, somehow escaped my parents’ ire. Proof that my mother, at least, still adores JFK came years ago when I visited Washington, DC for the first time and my mom wanted to know only two things. Had I gone to see the Vietnam Memorial, and had I visited JFK’s grave at Arlington Cemetery?


During the 2000 Presidential primary when I was teaching at Saint Anselm College in Manchester, NH, several of my students were among the standing-room-only crowd that gathered to hear an on-campus campaign speech by Senator John McCain. Surprised that one of my more dry and cynical students had attended a stump speech, I asked her if she was a McCain supporter, registered Republican, or even intended to vote. “No,” she replied. “I’m not really into politics. But I admire McCain because unlike the other candidates, he really seems to stand for something.”

Old glory

I’m sure every Presidential hopeful would have us believe that they stand for something…but in my student’s eyes, McCain was the only candidate in the 2000 election whose personal history was powerful enough to carry the hype of myth. “Let’s face it,” my student astutely observed. “Presidents are basically administrators. They oversee the government, but their real power is inspirational. Kids today are cynical about politics because none of our administrators is inspiring. If we had a leader who really believed in something, we’d believe in him, too.”

Glass pavilion

Of the many things I’ve learned from students over the years, this one statement from one student at Saint Anselm College has probably rung the truest. Kids today are cynical about politics, and it’s largely because they (like my parents) see the hypocrisy of it all. But the fact that a figure such as the late John Paul II was widely adored by teenagers–even while he took unpopular stands against contraception, homosexuality, and other issues of interest to young people–suggests that teens are looking for heroes. “Teenagers are very idealistic if you give them something to be idealistic about,” that student of mine explained. “If a person like JFK ran today–you know, with all his ‘ask what you can do for your country’ stuff–college kids would vote for him.” My student seemed entirely convinced of this, and her conviction, like the hopeful idealism of a youthful candidate, was contagious.

Looking up

And so on Sunday, it seemed entirely appropriate to contemplate JFK, Jackie, and the myth of Camelot inside a pristinely white building set like a gem before an ocean of blue. When it comes to youthful idealism and all-American potential, the sea, sky, and a certain dead President all seemed to suggest “the sky’s the limit.”

Click here for a photo-set of the outside of the JFK Library and here for a photo-set of indoor exhibits. Enjoy!

Say what?

It’s the fifth week of the semester at Keene State, the fourth week of the semester for SNHU Online, and the third week of the semester at Granite State. In other words, this week I’m feeling the full brunt of being a multi-institutional adjunct instructor, burning the proverbial candle at both ends to keep all my juggled balls aloft and moving.


I’m tempted to say that like Mother Hubbard, my blog-cupboard is bare, but that’s not true. It’s not that I don’t have things to say, pictures to share, or ideas for blog-posts: there simply aren’t enough hours in the day to do it all.

Gate closed

At times like these, I feel more like a bricklayer than I do a writer. While my poet friends concern themselves with the crafting of fine delicate trinkets–the work of literary watchmakers or jewelers–I’m daunted by the sheer weight of words as I try to keep on top of a perpetually renewing paper-pile. There’s no time to help my students craft fine delicate sentences; instead, we’re in the business, my students and I, of building weighty walls of prose, and that means schlepping a lot of words.

Danger - No Trespassing

It’s tiring work, this building with words, brick by brick. At the end of one of my marathon teaching days, my feet ache with the weight of language, and I come home wanting nothing more than to sit on my couch and say nothing. On grading days when I’m home with dog, laptop, and the ever-present paper-pile, my head and neck feel the weight of words like a yoke as I plow, ox-like, through the furrows of other people’s prose, pen in hand.


At this point in the semester–the simultaneous fifth week, fourth week, and third–I ask myself why I require my students to write so damn much, a question I’m sure they’re each individually asking. The answer, unfortunately, is always the same. If you want to become a bricklayer yourself, you have to lay your own wall, brick by brick; if you want the benefit of learning from an older, more experience bricklayer, she needs to watch and oversee your progress. It’s long, grueling work, and there are no shortcuts. By week seven, six, and five, we all will be stronger and more callused, my students and I. Between now and then, though, all we feel is the slow grind of a heavy haul.

Road work ahead

Picture perfect...with a little help

Today was a picture-perfect day in Boston with mild temperatures, turquoise-blue skies, and a light breeze. It’s no wonder, then, that one bride and groom thought the harbor walk alongside the JFK Library would be the picture-perfect site for their wedding portrait.

Click here for several other shots of this same picture-perfect couple. Outdoor wedding photography is something I’ve captured here and here as well: enjoy!


During the few days since I last walked past it, my favorite abandoned factory has gone topless. If you compare these photos to the one I posted when demolition first began earlier this month, you can see the rear portion of this long-abandoned factory is now leveled and the second floor of the front portion has been knocked down. Half destroyed, the standing remnant of this building has literally lost a story.


On the one hand, toppling the top of an unused building seems almost surgical in its precision: first, we remove and tidy-up the top floor, then we level and clean debris from the bottom. On the other hand, demolishing a building from the top down seems almost too cruelly precise, as if this aged edifice has had the top of its head removed. If all buildings must eventually die, can’t we devise a way for them to die with dignity?

When I snapped the first daytime photo of this ongoing demolition project, I heard a faraway voice shout, “No pictures!” At the time, I assumed workmen were worried I was photographing them: maybe there are proprietary secrets on this job-site, or perhaps these workers are particularly shy. In retrospect, though, I wonder if one of this building’s neighbors shouted in its defense, not wanting prying eyes to watch as it crumbles into forced decrepitude. Perhaps I, too, should look away, my camera covered, while Old Abandoned dies an unsung death. Having lost a story, what more could this old building have to say?

Sickos, stay home!

I suppose it makes sense to encourage sick folks not to board crowded subway cars. At times, simply being in a subway car is enough to make an otherwise healthy person feel queasy, and the sign is right when it says station workers can help an infirm person better than subway drivers can. Still, I had to chuckle when I saw this sign in an MTA subway car headed into Manhattan several weekends ago. I guess a terse “Sicko, stay away” is one version of New Yorkers’ famed “directness.”

Gucci cab

Today I won’t be taking my sick self onto any New York subway cars. This morning I woke to a spinning room: vertigo, the head-swimming nausea I sometimes experience when allergic sinusitis settles into my inner ear. Today’s case has been mild: I’m able to sit up and even stand if I don’t move around much, unlike past cases where I’ve been able to lie on one side but not the other, the simple act of rolling over causing my head to whirl. Still, if sitting up and standing in one place, carefully, is all you can muster, teaching is pretty much out of the question, so I canceled today’s classes and have spent the day napping, lying still, and trying to grade papers as I’ve been able.  With the help of decongestants, my head is slowly clearing, but in the meantime, I won’t be taking any whirls other than the ones I’m currently feeling between my ears.

Buddha and the bottle

A buddha sits in Brooklyn, and in my fantasy he climbs from his seat in the middle of the afternoon to sip white wine from a Dixie cup. By night, this room was where a half-dozen or more of my blog-buddies slept last weekend, unrolling bedrolls and sleeping bags and then dutifully packing them away each morning, our diverted eyes creating virtual walls of privacy when any one of us was changing or meditating. By day, this room transformed from virtual bedroom to impromptu party-pad, the place where we sat on the floor drinking wine and talking. Buddha never joined these discussions, and he certainly never slept; he aways sat stony and aloof.

Blurry buddha

In retrospect, I wish I had been less like Buddha and more like my friends, surrendering myself wholeheartedly to late-night poetry readings and the rowdy recitation of limericks. I wish I had photographed more bare faces, feet, and hands, the tangible proof of embodied presence; I wish I’d insisted that we women with pedicured feet take a photo of our touching toes, the painted petals of our grounded togetherness. In retrospect, I wish I’d danced with a small handful of others, but instead I sat serene and aloof, a Buddha who hadn’t bonded enough with the bottle to melt her inner resolve. Like Ray Smith in Jack Kerouac’s The Dharma Bums, I spent too much time last weekend hanging and holding back, wishing I could surrender to spontaneity like wild-eyed Japhy Ryder. Instead of being fully and truly present in Brooklyn with my buddies, last weekend I was distracted with the work I’d brought, the downside of teaching online being the fact that your virtual “class” follows you everywhere.

Now that I’m back in Keene, I’m still distracted by the work I didn’t get done last weekend and the work that has accrued in the meantime: a moonlighting teacher’s work is never done. Now that I sit in my quiet apartment with just a silent Buddha statue, the dog, and me, I harbor lingering fantasies about what didn’t happen in Brooklyn. In retrospect, I wish I’d truly believed our time on earth is precious and brief and acted accordingly, tossing work aside to party with the best of them, stone-faced Buddha notwithstanding.

This is my belated contribution to this week’s Photo Friday theme, Fantasy. Click here to see the photos I shot while wandering Brooklyn streets: enjoy!

Temple of Love

When J and I go exploring with cameras, we often agree upon a challenge. Who can capture the quintessential Boston tourist shot, for instance, or who can snap a photo which truly expresses the flavor of the North End?

Today, J and I went for a Sunday stroll at Larz Anderson Park in Brookline, MA, and I named the challenge. Knowing Larz Anderson offers excellent kite-flying along with an impressive view of the Boston skyline, I suggested that J and I try to snap a two-in-one shot: a kite-flyer backdropped by the Boston skyline. As it turned out, today was less-than-ideal for kite-flying, so this is the best shot I got:

Boston skyline with kite

Exactly one week ago, I went walking with friends in Brooklyn’s Sunset Park; my self-made challenge, an attempt to capture the flavor of a leisurely Sunday in the park backdropped by the Manhattan skyline. Here, again, is the best shot I got:

Manhattan skyline

Today, I shot a well-weathered statue standing near the Larz Anderson skating pavilion:


Exactly one week ago, I shot the Statue of Liberty as seen through a shroud of haze:

Statue of Liberty

Tonight, J and I will watch the Red Sox play the Yankees; last week, while I was in Brooklyn, J watched the New England Patriots beat the New York Jets alone. The rivalry between Boston and New York goes deeper than baseball, football, and the like. Thanks to the wonders of modern travel, it’s perfectly possible to spend one Sunday in Brooklyn and the next in Brookline, the Manhattan skyline of one week replaced by the Boston skyline the next. “Where are you?” these images seem to ask. Wherever you stroll on a given Sunday, where do your loyalties lie, and where is your attention deeply drawn? That practice of attention is the truest challenge of all.

Click here for a photo-set from today’s Sunday stroll at Larz Anderson Park.

Cafe Un Deux Trois

Sometimes, even in a museum-rich city like New York, you have to head outside to find art elsewhere.

Sushi Zen

This past Saturday began with a trip to the Museum of Modern Art, and it ended with me slipping away from a largish band of blog-buddies to walk the streets of Manhattan alone. I suppose it must seem odd that I’d traveled all the way to New York to visit friends who I then promptly ditched, but I think those friends understand my sometimes solitary ways. I love museums, but I need to sample them in small doses. Sometimes the sheer stimulus of being around that much art, especially if I’m in the presence of energetic, articulate folks who have so much brilliant stuff to say about that art, is a bit overwhelming. So on Saturday, after a leisurely gallery-stroll and languid lunch, I was ready to slip the bonds of sociality and hit the streets, alone.

In case you haven’t figured as much, I love to walk city streets alone. Walking with dear friends is wonderful, but walking alone is something else entirely. It’s not as if I prefer walking alone to walking with friends; it’s just that I sometimes need to spend time by myself. When I’m with friends, I still look around, notice things, and take pictures, but sometimes the presence of another person is simply too distracting. If I’m focusing on a friend or group of friends, it’s easy to overlook what’s going on around me, and somehow those anonymous goings-on help me feel grounded. In an odd, paradoxical way, being alone in a group of strangers sometimes seems more comforting to me than walking with a group of people I know. When I’m with people I know, I’m always aware of the personal interactions between us, and with that comes the usual insecure angst that most folks left behind when they graduated high school: “Do these folks like me?” “Am I talking too little, or too much?” “Am I making a fool of myself, or am I coming across as an obnoxious know-it-all?”

Strolling by sushi

When I walk by myself in a sea of strangers, I don’t have to consider myself at all. Nobody knows who I am, and no one cares: there’s absolutely no need to wonder how my behavior is affecting anyone else. When I walk by myself in a sea of strangers, I don’t have to worry about what to say, who to heed, or how to act. There’s no need to worry or wonder about the irresistible human tendency toward cozy cliques and covert couplings: alone, I needn’t insinuate myself into any group. When I walk by myself in a sea of strangers, I am free to act as an entire, unthinking Eye, simply observing the people, places, and things around me with no thought toward how a figment called “I” fits into the scene.

And so on Saturday, after I’d slipped the cultured bonds of both art and friendship, I walked some five miles along Manhattan streets, heading up to, through, then across Central Park, circling back to Sixth Avenue, and ending at Times Square. I had no definite destination, just the soothing rhythm of my own feet underfoot. As I walked, I took a few but not many photos, my focus being the purely physical sensation of walking unencumbered: first this foot, then the next. Losing myself to the moment, the motion of my own strides, and the mood of anonymous faces around me, I forgot everything I ever might have known about art, friendship, and the cozy cliques and covert couplings they each sometimes inspire. Losing myself to the moment, motion, and mood, I simply watched the city and its denizens transpire around me, the raw materials of awareness culminating in my midst.

Just married

That’s when I happened upon Art Elsewhere. Where but in New York could you flee a museum to find the ultimate painterly moment: a bride and her just-married husband loading wedding presents for their departure, the sumptuous folds of her dress matching the intricate wrinkles of a renovation-wrapped facade? Where but in New York could you watch such an intimate moment–a couple’s first cooperative endeavor as man and wife–without anyone paying the least attention to you, the sight of brides and their just-married grooms seeming so commonplace, everyone’s grown indifferent to the wonder of it all?

If Vermeer were here, he would have painted this girl with a wedding dress instead of a pearl earring; if Picasso were here, bride and groom would be rent into angle and plane. Instead, passersby simply passed, and only one anonymous blogger–an Eye, unthinking and entire–stopped to snap the scene. This, too, is an artful moment, catalogued in the museum of the mind.

Click here for a photoset from Saturday morning’s trip to MoMA, before I fled the scene to find art on the streets of Manhattan. Enjoy!

Take five

New York is such a high-energy city, even Central Park ballerina-mimes have to take an occasional break to hit the (water) bottle. I’m back from my whirlwind weekend in Brooklyn and have two online classes to check, four face-to-face classes to prep, and a weekend’s worth of photos to sift through before declaring myself officially home and settled. In the meantime, you can read Rachel’s account of a weekend spent with friends. Right now, I’m craving a cup of the real chai she mentions…

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