July 2013

Every horse-crazy girl's dream job

On Saturday, J and I went to Suffolk Downs to take lots of pictures, just as we did last year, and this photo is probably my favorite. When I was a horse-crazy little girl devouring books by Marguerite Henry and Walter Farley, being a jockey was on my short-list of dream jobs, right up there with “someone who writes books like Misty of Chinoteague and The Black Stallion.” Judging from the smile on this jockey’s face, she knows she’s living the dream of countless little girls like me who grew up in the city and could only read and dream about riding race horses.

Cooling down

Of course, being a jockey who rides race horses isn’t the only dream job of horse-crazy little city girls. As the saying goes, it takes a village to raise a child, and it takes an entire staff of people to prep and primp a race horse.

Last minute preparations

In between races at Suffolk Downs, while other spectators were making bets on upcoming races, J and I were watching each stage of the race-day process, so we had plenty of opportunities to admire the riders on the lead ponies who escort race horses to the starting gate…

Checkerboard rump

…and the members of the gate crew, who have the challenging (and dangerous) job of loading a thousand pounds of nervous, energetic horseflesh into the starting gate.

Loading into the starting gate

After having watched a handful of races from all possible angles, I’ve decided that being a jockey would be fun, but being a groom would be even better.

Say "Cheese!"

A jockey gets to ride a horse for the minute or two that the race actually lasts, but as soon as that race is over, a jockey hops off and is done, ready to ride whatever other horses she or he has been hired to ride.

Hopping off

A horse’s groom, on the other hand, spends a lot of time primping and preparing the individual horses under his care. First there’s the walk from the stable to the paddock…


…then the walk around the paddock…

Warming in the paddock

…then the official check-in where a man with a clipboard checks the number tattooed inside the horse’s upper lip to make sure this horse really is the one registered for the race.

Checking in

Next there’s time for quick spritz…


…then it’s time to saddle up.

Saddling up

During the race and in the Winner’s Circle, all eyes are on a horse’s jockey because her or his job happens at the climactic moment when months of behind-the-scenes preparation and training culminate in two minutes of glory.

Win, place, and show

But on a day-to-day basis, it’s a horse’s groom that spends the most time overseeing the mundane tasks of equine care. A horse and jockey have a working relationship that many horse-crazy city girls might dream of, but it’s the quiet moments before or after a race when you’ll see the true tenderness that endures between a horse and his tender.

Cooling down

Click here for more photos from Saturday’s trip to Suffolk Downs. Enjoy!

Johnny's Luncheonette

This afternoon J and I walked to Newton Centre for lunch at Johnny’s Luncheonette. We’d been to the doctor for our annual check-ups in the morning, so taking a few extra hours off to take a walk and go to lunch was a small reward. We don’t even try to go to lunch at Johnny’s on the weekends, when it’s typically packed with brunch crowds, but if we go on a weekday after the height of the lunch rush, we can usually get a table for two without having to wait.

Funky lamps

Johnny’s has a fun retro vibe with its linoleum diner counter, Art Deco light fixtures, vintage décor, and framed black-and-white class photos from “back in the day.” Every time we sit toward the back of Johnny’s Luncheonette, I try to get a picture of a fixture I call the Diner Diver: a pale blue mannequin hanging from the ceiling in a perfect back dive.

Diner diver

The menu at Johnny’s offers reliable lunch and breakfast standbys: classic diner fare. J typically gets the macaroni and cheese, which features penne rather than macaroni pasta with a blend of Romano, mozzarella, and parmesan cheeses, and I usually get the Jordan Marsh, which features two eggs, a grilled blueberry muffin, and a small fruit cup.

Johnny's Luncheonette sign

Today was busier than usual, so we sat at the counter rather than waiting for a table. As we were waiting for our food to arrive, we heard two women cheering near the coin-operated “claw” machine that stands near the entrance, tantalizing children with a colorful assortment of stuffed animals you can win if you’re deft enough to grab one.

“You won, you won!” the women–presumably a mother and grandmother–cheered as a young boy held a small, hot-pink stuffed Mickey Mouse and beamed. J started clapping, and I joined the women in cheering. “We’ve never seen anyone win anything, and you won” they exclaimed.

Vintage class photos

I don’t know if the boy was old enough to realize his hot-pink prize was probably intended for a girl, but that didn’t seem to matter to him or his mother and grandmother. As the family filed out the door and onto the street, the boy held the toy in two hands, looking at it with an air of overjoyed amazement, as if he couldn’t believe his good luck.

Revere Beach Sand Sculpting Festival

On Sunday, J and I took the T to Revere Beach, where we caught the final day of this year’s National Sand Sculpting Festival. This is the third year we’ve gone to Revere Beach to see the sand sculptures, and every year we marvel at the level of detail master artisans can achieve in a seemingly shapeless medium.

Revere Beach Sand Sculpting Festival

In the aftermath of this year’s Boston Marathon bombings, it was no surprise that the theme of this year’s festival was “Boston Strong.” The festival’s central sculpture—a towering wall featuring the names of the festival’s corporate sponsors—was flanked with American flags and featured images of runners, a tribute to law enforcement (including slain MIT officer Sean Collier), and a nod to the Good Samaritans, first responders, doctors, and nurses who helped victims.

Boston Strong

Revere Beach Sand Sculpting Festival

Collier Strong

Revere Beach Sand Sculpting Festival

The phrase “Boston Strong” represents the way an entire community came together in the aftermath of tragedy, stranger helping stranger, and I suppose sand sculptures are a good metaphor for this kind of community bonding. Individual grains of sand are neither strong nor special; they’re just gritty. En mass, however, grains of sand can either wear down stone or build towering structures. Given the nitty-gritty particulars of fate, what kind of structures might we build, together?

Click here for more photos from this year’s National Sand Sculpting Festival at Revere Beach. Enjoy!

Fountain and Story Chapel

This past week has been blistering hot in New England, with a string of 90-degree days. Although I don’t mind walking in rain, snow, or freezing cold, hot and humid days sap both my energy and resolve. Although my spirit longs to be walking, my body craves coolness, so I tend to lie low during heat waves, spending too much time inside, all but imprisoned in the two rooms where we have window air conditioners: a self-imposed exile.

Beloved daughter Maria

On Wednesday evening, however, I ventured out in search of shade, meeting a friend at Mount Auburn Cemetery for a sketch-stroll. Sketching is a slow, sedentary activity that works well on hot days, at least once you’ve found a shady spot with a breeze. In a woodsy cemetery like Mount Auburn, there are plenty of trees and quiet, secluded nooks where you can sit and serenely sweat. With no hurry to be much of anywhere, you can walk slowly, staring at stones and eschewing sunny spots. With nothing but a pencil, sketchbook, and random snippets of quiet conversation to entertain you, you can slow and sooth your heat-addled senses.

Celtic cross

After sitting for about an hour with our sketchbooks, my friend and I headed back to the cemetery gate, walking slowly. I had left a bottle of water in my car, but I knew it would be hot by the time we got there, so when one of Mount Auburn’s security guards drove by in his truck and offered ice-cold bottles of spring water—leftover refreshments from an early evening tree walk—I was happy to accept. At the still-hot end of a sweltering day, the only thing more refreshing than sitting a spell in the shade is gulping down a bottle of ice-cold goodness.

Click here for a photo-set from Wednesday’s cemetery stroll, including snapshots of the three sketches I made. Enjoy!

Charles River Museum of Industry & Innovation

It’s a simple enough story. A few moments before the Buddha attained enlightenment, he was confronted by Mara, the tempter, who tried to interrupt his meditation. Mara tried the usual techniques, assailing the Buddha with lovely women and fearsome demons. Upon seeing the Buddha wasn’t swayed by desire or fear, Mara launched his most dangerous assault, leaning low to whisper a single question into Buddha’s ear: “Who do you think you are?”

Charles River Museum of Industry & Innovation

It is a troubling and pervasive question. Who hasn’t heard an inner voice asking some semblance of this question, which is simultaneously an accusation and an invitation to doubt? Who do you think you are that you can attain enlightenment? Who do you think you are that you can offer wisdom to the ages: who do you think you are that you can have something to say, and actually dare to say it? Who do you think you are that you can dare dream to do something with your life: who do you think you are to dare do?

Charles River Museum of Industry & Innovation

Buddha did the wisest possible thing in this situation: he refused to engage the question. Instead of launching into the puffery of autobiography—“Look at me and all I have done, accomplished, and learned”—the Buddha vanquished Mara by throwing him off kilter, off center, and even off his keister. When Mara asked Buddha “Who do you think you are,” Buddha said nothing but merely reached one hand toward the ground and touched earth with four gently straightened fingers. Who am I? Here I am.

Charles River Museum of Industry & Innovation

Traditional accounts of this tale say that after the Buddha touched earth, the earth and all its denizens themselves bore witness. What does that mean, exactly? To my ear, that means the Buddha returned to this moment, pulled himself out of the mental wrestling match that is obsessing on your own identity, and became aware (at last!) of what was transpiring around him in the natural world: green grass, towering trees, and flourishing flowers.

Charles River Museum of Industry & Innovation

You don’t have to be a Buddha to touch the earth, nor do you have to wait until Mara is staring you down, confrontational. At any moment, the earth endures; at any moment, the earth is largely ignored. Today, outside, what is happening right here, right under my feet? Today, right now, if I stretched my hand to my side, what would I find under my fingertips: grass and soil, sidewalk and concrete, carpet and upholstery?

Charles River Museum of Industry & Innovation

It never hurts to return to the present moment, to the senses, to whatever is happening right now. Even in painful moments, there is no harm in returning to the raw, unadulterated experience of suffering. What does it feel like, really, to suffer, to ache in one’s innards, to grieve, to lament, to cry? Forget the story of grief you’ve long told yourself—the narrative of blame and regret, accusation and accountability. Some things just hurt, and there is no explaining it: in the absence of explanation, then, what does the pure, unedited experience of sorrow actually feel like? In the absence of interpretation, what experience is actually true?

Charles River Museum of Industry & Innovation

When I was a child, long before I became a Buddhist, I used to dissect my own headaches. As a child prone to allergies, I was also (and still am) prone to sinus headaches: an awful kind of pressure that builds within your skull and makes you feel like you have a large, hulking animal standing on your face. Some sinus headaches relent with the use of decongestants; others fade in the face of painkillers. Other sinus headaches, however, simply stay, pressing into the crevices of your skull and aggressively arching against the contours of your own skin.

Charles River Museum of Industry & Innovation

Whenever as a child I encountered one of these obstreperous headaches, the kind that medicine is helpless to heal, I would consciously become quiet, hunkering into my own consciousness with a single-pointedness that only a studious child can muster. With the same attentiveness with which I watched marching lines of ants on a summer sidewalk or stalking herons picking off pond frogs, I observed and analyzed my own physical pain. Where did it originate from? Was it solid and confined, with clearly defined borders, or did it send snaky roots into distant synapses, sprawling? Was it a hot pain or a cold pain? A fat, burbling pain or a sharp, shooting one? Did it quietly creep or thunderously stampede? What color was it at the center, and what color faded delicately to a fringe at its edges?

Charles River Museum of Industry & Innovation

When you clinically dissect your own pain, you might discover, as I did, something interesting. Physical pain at its root isn’t essentially unpleasant. Instead, it is a combination of elements that each in their own right is entirely neutral: a feeling of warmth combined with a sensation of pressure, or a pinprick of cold coupled with a sudden surge of tension. Nausea might strike as an overwhelming wave of motion; a stomach ache might feel like a slightly too-ripe fullness. “Pain” is a terribly imprecise word: surely we can do better than to lump so many disparate and ultimately interesting experiences—the one thing we all reliably share—under such an imprecise umbrella.

Charles River Museum of Industry & Innovation

One of the things I’ve learned from meditation—the eventual corollary to that childhood experience of simply observing my own suffering with a spirit of open curiosity—is that an adequately bored mind will contemplate anything you plunk before it. The operant word here is “contemplate,” not obsess. Obsessing is what we do when we attach a fixed narrative or agenda—an explanation—to our experiences: “I am hurting,” for instance, “because I was mistreated by my parents” or “It’s all my own damn fault, again” or “How could they have done that to me” or “I should have known better.” It doesn’t matter what story you tell yourself when you’re hurting: if you’re curious, a skilled therapist can help you untangle the threads of your own particular, favored narrative, or you can spend a day, week, or month sitting in silence, letting time and an inquisitive spirit do the untangling for you. It doesn’t matter what particular story you tell yourself when you’re hurting: what matters is the realization that whatever you tell yourself, it’s ultimately just a story.

Charles River Museum of Industry & Innovation

“Sticks and stones can break my bones, but words can never hurt me.” As children, we told ourselves (repeatedly) that words could never hurt us, repeating the rhyme as kind of incantation against harm. But words regularly hurt us, and others: we hurt from the insults and accusations of others, we hurt others with our own hateful speech, and we hurt ourselves—those hidden, horrible wounds—with the thoughts we recite, intone, and repeat in the inner sanctum of our soul: the most vicious kind of spell, because it invariably goes straight to its target, ourselves. (Who needs Mara when we tempt and torment ourselves so terribly?)

Charles River Museum of Industry & Innovation

Words do hurt us because we believe them. We tell ourselves (and are told) stories to explain our experiences, and then we trust these words more than we trust our experiences themselves. Believing that “everything happens for a reason,” be batter ourselves with blame; believing that “nothing happens in isolation,” we accost our friends and families with accusations. Maybe it’s a conspiracy, or a willful tendency to self-destruct, or a mind-boggling confluence of cosmic forces entirely outside our control…but somewhere, somehow, something or someone caused whatever is happening to us, and we will cling like terriers to that belief.

Charles River Museum of Industry & Innovation

But maybe things just happen. Maybe it’s not anyone’s fault. Maybe suffering is the one universal in a sea of change—maybe the reality and the experience of suffering is the only thing we can rely on in a world filled with uncertainty.

If suffering is universal—if suffering is not just ordinary, but absolutely guaranteed—then it’s not our fault, the fault of our parents, or the fault of our exes and enemies. If suffering is simply inevitable, unavoidable, and omnipresent, like the hatching of blackflies in the spring, then we can save the energy we’d normally spend trying to explain, rationalize, or understand it. Instead of trying to fix the problem by trying to figure out who or what is to blame, we can simply experience the problem, for the experience of any moment of suffering—the experience of any moment, actually—almost always carries within it a suggestion of how it should be handled.

Charles River Museum of Industry & Innovation

If you listen to the moment, in other words, the moment itself will tell you how to handle it. Has a grieving mother ever had to wonder whether it is appropriate to cry? No. Her tears come naturally, in their own time, as will her eventual healing. But both the tears and the healing will follow a timeline you probably couldn’t have predicted, and they will arrive in ways you probably didn’t expect.

Charles River Museum of Industry & Innovation

So when Mara asked Buddha a seemingly innocuous question—“Who do you think you are?”—Buddha didn’t take the bait. Whatever story you tell yourself to explain Who and What You Are is irrelevant, for suffering truly doesn’t care: I can tell you quite definitively that pain has never retreated after the recitation of an impressive resume. Relinquishing the desire to explain, exonerate, or self-justify, we can listen as the whole wide world bears witness. Touching earth, we connect with the suffering world as it actually is and experience the instant enlightenment known as Truth.

I found this half-written essay in a forgotten folder of free-writes I’d written at last August’s BRAWN Writing Retreat. The random photos illustrating today’s post come from the Charles River Museum of Industry and Innovation in Waltham, MA. Enjoy!

The Wall at Central Square

One day last week while I was writing my hour, a curious thing happened. I came to the page uninspired: my promise to write was my only goad. On days when I’m uninspired, writing my hour feels like pure drudgery: more an act of will than creativity as each word ticks by like a slow-moving second-hand inching bit by bit closer to “done.”

The Wall at Central Square

But then, a pair of words appeared. I’d been describing a wending and rambling drive J and I had taken and how it took us through nearby neighborhoods I’d never seen. Isn’t it interesting, I wrote, how you can live in a place for years without exploring all of its streets, your feet following well-worn and familiar paths. This in turn reminded me how I learned to navigate Boston when I first moved here and relied upon public transportation, my knowledge of the city growing in discrete, piecemeal patches every time I explored a new-to-me subway stop and the neighborhood within walking distance of it. My knowledge of Boston was like a map drawn by foot, with scattered pockets that were explored and familiar while the largest portions remained unmapped and foreign: an inland archipelago of known neighborhoods stranded like islands in a vast and largely unknown landscape.

The Wall at Central Square

“Inland archipelagos” was the magic phrase: two words that shimmered to the surface of consciousness, announcing themselves as the title of an essay I’ve only begun to write. Those two words served as a kind of guiding or governing concept: the one central “hook” from which you can hang an entire narrative. Some writers need to start with a first line or a central image; some writers need to start with a title rather than discovering it by accident halfway between “I don’t know what to write” and “Done.” In my experience, though, the first line, central image, title, or other guiding concept doesn’t typically come first: instead, it arises only after I’ve groped around in the dark for a while, writing a meandering series of sentences that (seemingly) head nowhere.

The Wall at Central Square

I’ve been writing long enough to recognize that this is how it typically happens: I find a subject to write about only after I’ve started writing. I often think of this as being like a runner settling into stride: you start off stiff and awkward, but gradually you relax into a comfortable pace…but that will never happen until you lace up shoes and get moving. You’ll never find your stride unless you stand up first.

The Wall at Central Square

When I write my daily journal pages, this settling-into-stride often happens around the third page, the first two pages serving as a kind of warm-up where I rehearse the mundane details of the day. Those first two pages are like the casual chitchat workers engage in at the start of a meeting, catching up with what’s new before their boss clears her throat and announces, “I called you together today to discuss…” That ellipsis is the crux of the matter—the matter of substance—the magical transition between “How are you” and “Let’s get to work.”

The Wall at Central Square

Sometimes, that matter of substance appears in the form of a title, or a first line, or concluding remark: “Here is something I want to write a longer essay about.” Other times, a subject simply arises without announcing itself: suddenly one sentence leads to another, one paragraph leads to the next, and the next thing I know, I’ve written an essay where once there was nothing: spontaneous inspiration.

The Wall at Central Square

This proliferation of words is like an amoeba dividing or a cancer cell multiplying: an insubstantial thing becoming something with real matter and heft. Suddenly you realize the coarse stuff in your hand can be spun into something fine, long, and strong. You’ve literally found your material, a sturdy textile of text that’s stronger than steel.

Genki Spark

On Sunday J and I went to the Boston Common, where the multi-generational, pan-Asian women’s taiko drum troupe The Genki Spark appeared at this year’s Outside the Box music festival. J and I first encountered The Genki Spark when they encouraged runners with their bright and bold taiko drumming, cheering, and dancing at the Boston Marathon several years ago, and we saw them again this year, when they marched in this year’s Boston Pride parade. When J and I heard The Genki Spark would be performing on the Common this weekend, we took the T downtown to check out (and photograph) their performance.

Genki Spark

Most of this weekend’s Outside the Box concerts happened outside in hot and humid open-air venues. The Genki Spark, however, performed at the festival’s Spiegeltent, an air-conditioned structure that looked a bit like a yurt with wooden floors and walls and a red fabric, circus-top style roof.

Big top tent

The inside of the Spiegeltent featured mirrored walls (hence its name) and booth-style tables around the circular periphery, and rows of folding chairs in the center lined up to face the stage. The rectangular entry vestibule had a bar on one side where The Genki Spark displayed their promotional postcards and buttons, and the overall mood of the space was that of a saloon or dance hall. Sitting in one of the booths before the performance began, I felt like I should have been sipping a cocktail served by a buxom and well-bustled barmaid: something straight out of a Hollywood Western, not something in the heart of Puritanical New England.

Spiegeltent mirrors

Any tawdry associations the venue might have inspired at first glance, though, disappeared the second the Genkis whooped and hollered their way into the room after having (literally) drummed up an audience outside. The Genki Spark take their name from a Japanese word meaning “healthy, happy, and alive,” and this Genki spirit is immediately apparent at any performance.

Genki Spark

Sunday’s show was everything J and I have come to expect from Genki Spark performances: loud, energetic, and irrepressibly happy. Traditional taiko drumming is serious business—the stuff of samurai and stern-faced monks—but The Genki Spark channel that fierce boldness in a manner that is fun, festive, and decidedly feminine, with plenty of bright colors, smiles, and sparkle.

Genki swag

With their message of empowerment for women and girls of all ages—don’t be afraid to make a LOUD sound—The Genki Spark offer a version of Girl Power that is both robust and fun. You have to be strong and energetic to play a big drum, but there’s no reason you can’t be strong and energetic while wearing neon leggings, fringed shirts, and multicolored shoes.

Genki shoes

If I had a daughter, I’d want her to grow up genki: bold, assertive, self-confident, and happy. The Genki Spark embody a kind of female empowerment that incorporates cultural pride, self-acceptance, and all stages of sisterhood. Why should health, happiness, and self-assurance be reserved for girls who are reserved, young, skinny, or white? The Genki Spark clearly reveres woman-power as much as girl-power, suggesting that to embrace Who You Are in its entirety, you have to embrace your culture as well as your age: where you come from as well as where we’re all headed.

Genki Spark

These aren’t, in other words, Disney Princesses with ball gowns, tiaras, and impossibly wasp-waisted figures, tottering in high-heeled glass slippers. Instead, these are women who trade the rules of presumably “lady-like” behavior—“Keep your voice down” and “Keep your knees together”—for big, bold sounds made from a wide, well-grounded stance. Ranging in age from fifteen to fifty-something, the women of The Genki Spark might not be Disney Princesses, but they are something even better: strong women who show both girls and boys alike how to make a big, bold sound.

Little kids / big drums

This year’s Outside the Box music festival continues through July 21st with free performances on the Boston Common and City Hall Plaza. Click here for a schedule of upcoming performers, and click here for more pictures from Sunday’s performance of The Genki Spark: enjoy!

Jeppe Hein's "Please..."

Yesterday I had a meeting at Northeastern University, so instead of taking the T straight to either the Northeastern or Ruggles stops, I got off at Fenway, walked along the Muddy River, then cut through the Museum of Fine Arts on my way to campus. I had time to look at just one exhibit–“New Blue and White,” a collection of contemporary works inspired by traditional cobalt-and-white ceramics—so I circled through that exhibit several times, looking at the pieces and taking pictures before I continued on to Northeastern, which is virtually across the street from the Museum.

Blue and White

This is what I like best about having a Museum membership: the ability to pop into the MFA on my way to something else, quickly checking out a single exhibit or simply enjoying an air-conditioned, beauty-rich reprieve on my way from Point A to Point B. When you spend an entire day at a Museum, you run the risk of museum-fatigue, your achy feet and glazed-over eyes feeling the effects of trying to cram too much culture into a single outing. But when you explore one tiny corner of a museum, there is little risk of fatigue. Instead of trying to swallow an entire smorgasbord, you can sip and savor just a small spoonful.

Blue and White

Museums work best, I’ve found, in small, frequent doses, not marathon cram sessions. When I was a graduate student at Northeastern in the 1990s, the University had an arrangement with the MFA where students and faculty got into the Museum free simply by showing their ID, and I took full advantage of this, going to the Museum whenever I had a break between classes and wanted a quick reprieve from the demands of juggling doctoral studies and teaching.

Blue and White

In retrospect, that habit of taking short trips to the MFA—either on my own or with my students, whom I’d give an assignment requiring them to find a work of art they liked, then write about it—was perhaps the most valuable thing I took from my years at Northeastern. For me, trying to “cover” an entire Museum in a single trip is too much like work: there’s too much to see, and there’s more than a bit of anxiety or guilt involved, as if it were a moral failing if you miss or improperly absorb something. It feels like a kind of failure—a stress-inducing thing—to try to cram an entire art education into a single session as if there were going to be a test afterward that you have to pass, or else.

Shooting blue

When you establish the habit of visiting a world-class art museum both frequently and casually, dropping in now and again, as you’re able, you come to see art itself not as an abstract or elite thing saved for special occasions when you’re feeling particularly cerebral. Instead, you come to see art fondly and even affectionately: an expression of natural creativity that belongs to the entire human family. Familiar, oft-visited pieces become dear to you, like extended family members you enjoy seeing again and again.

The works in “New Blue and White” reminded me of John Singer Sargent’s “The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit,” which stands flanked by the blue-and-white Japanese porcelain vases that appear in it.

The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit, by John Singer Sargent

Sargent’s “Daughters” is a painting that frankly makes me happy whenever I see it, and I’ve visited it more times than I care to count, first in the old wing, then in the new. Only when you’ve been to a single museum many times can you enjoy that kind of relationship with particular artworks, seeing someone else’s daughters (and the décor they posed against) as being part of your extended family.

Blue and White

“New Blue and White” is a temporary exhibit on view through Saturday, so I saw it just in time: the next time I drop by the Museum of Fine Arts, something else will be on display in its place. That is, of course, yet another reason to visit a museum early and often: in addition to the longtime friends you’ll see repeatedly, you’ll also meet works that, like you, are just passing through.

Click here to see more images from “New Blue and White.” The title of today’s post comes from Jeppe Hein’s sculpture featuring neon tubes spelling out the best way to enjoy a museum:

“Please enjoy relax steal dance touch flirt smoke wonder feel muse eat sing listen talk ask touch neon look communicate touch each other use camera flash.”

Even the statues read

One of the things I look forward to in the summer time is catching up on the reading I don’t have time to do during a busy academic year. (Yes, the bitter irony is true: those of us who became English majors because we love to read too often find ourselves making a living reading student papers, not the books gathering dust on our shelves.) To me, a perfect summer day involves a trip to the library to browse shelves stocked with books free for the borrowing: so much insight and knowledge, all of it freely available to anyone with a library card and a willingness to share. Surely heaven is a library with shelves as endless as the days are long.

Here are my Goodreads reviews of five books I’ve already read this summer, my reading list leaning heavily toward the random and well-recommended.

Nose in a book

A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disaster, by Rebecca Solnit

A fascinating exploration of how people actually behave in the aftermath of disasters and why some disasters lead to an upsurge of community while others lead to social chaos. Solnit shows through sociological research and numerous anecdotes how the belief that the masses naturally panic during disasters is a myth created in large part by social forces trying to stay in power and fueled by media hype.

If given the chance, Solnit suggests, strangers will go to extraordinary lengths to help one another, finding a redemptive and even euphoric sense of camaraderie and community in the immediate aftermath of disaster, when social barriers are broken down. This spirit of community is ruined, however, when government and law enforcement treat the public as if they were more dangerous than the disaster itself, as happened in New Orleans in the aftermath of Katrina, when officials deemed it more important to protect property from imagined looters than tend to actual evacuees.

Solnit suggests that if government and law enforcement officials trust the people they are sworn to protect, the public can be a powerful ally in rebuilding and recovering in the aftermath of disaster.


Not Working: People Talk About Losing a Job and Finding Their Way in Today’s Changing Economy, by D.W. Gibson

The premise behind this book is simple: travel across America, talk to unemployed folks from all walks of life, and let them describe in their own words the day they lost their jobs. What emerges from these stories is both heartbreaking and oddly reassuring, a reminder to all who have been downsized that “you are not alone.”

Many themes emerge from these stories: in a struggling economy, seniority and job loyalty matter little, age discrimination exists, and we no longer live in a world where you can expect to work for (and retire from) a single company for your entire professional career. (Several of the people Gibson interviews had been laid off not just one but several times.)

One of the most remarkable aspects of Gibson’s book is the surprising lack of self-pity. Although his interview subjects are brutally honest in describing the emotions that unemployment evokes, none of them linger on the question of “Why me?” Instead, a strong sense of human dignity emerges as individuals strive to make sense of disappointment, and a surprising number of those interviewed describe the compassion they felt for the HR personnel and middle managers who delivered the bad news. The economy might be struggling, but human decency lives on.

Books to read, places to go

Heat Wave: A Social Autopsy of Disaster in Chicago, by Eric Klinenberg

The story of the deadly 1995 Chicago heat wave is fascinating enough, but don’t expect Eric Klinenberg’s book to be a popularly-accessible page-turner. Klinenberg’s book was written as a dissertation in sociology, so its methodology and supporting evidence are sound, but it seems to have been revised only minimally (if at all) for a lay audience.

The upshot of Klinenberg’s analysis of what led to so many deaths in Chicago in July, 1995 is that living along leads to dying alone, as getting out of sweltering tenement apartments and single-occupancy rooms–the kind of accommodations peopled by the urban poor and elderly–is essential for survival in a heat wave. In order to get out of their rooms and apartments, however, both the poor and elderly need to have welcoming (and cool) places to go, they need to feel safe walking their neighborhood streets and sidewalks, and they need to feel connected with (or at least trusting of) their neighbors and surrounding communities.

Klinenberg’s book is illustrated with indelible images of the disaster, including photos of emergency workers removing victims in body bags from locked, air-tight apartments: visual proof that it’s neither the heat nor the humidity that kills in a heat wave; it’s the social isolation.


The Faraway Nearby, by Rebecca Solnit

The Faraway Nearby is a collection of loosely related essays, and it took me a couple of essays to appreciate the strange and subtle web Solnit weaves among disparate topics such as Alzheimer’s disease and the artic, Frankenstein and leprosy, breast cancer and Icelandic fairy tales. This is, in other words, a book that gradually grows on you, so be sure to give it time.

The connections Solnit draws mostly work, but there are places where her far-flung associations fall flat: some of her remarks about her mother seem too raw and unfinished—embittered tattle-telling more than art—and at times the litany of places Solnit has traveled to and friends she’s known seems designed to underscore how charmed and fortunate her life has been. Boasting in a memoir is never becoming, and Solnit shines most brilliantly when she focuses on topics outside herself, such as the lives of Che Guevara, Mary Shelly, and the Buddha.

This is, I suspect, a book that merits re-reading, with the intricate weave of interconnected essays becoming more smooth and subtle with each encounter.


The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking, by Oliver Burkeman

Despite the hyperbolic subtitle, you don’t have to hate positive thinking to like Oliver Burkeman’s The Antidote. The book sets up (and then necessarily knocks down) a straw man in its opening description of the most extreme forms of self-help and positive thinking: fans of Barbara Ehrenreich’s Bright-sided will rejoice. But as much as Burkeman would deny it, The Antidote is itself a kind of self-help book, replacing the optimistic enthusiasms of positive thinking with a philosophy more realistic and reserved.

Much of Burkeman’s book is presented as contrarian common sense: everything you’ve ever heard about goal-setting is wrong, for instance, and it’s healthy (not detrimental) to contemplate worst-case scenarios and embrace failure. But substituting Burkeman’s way of thinking for positive thinking is, in the end, still just thinking. Burkeman argues that positive thinking doesn’t work because eliminating negative thoughts is as impossible as intentionally not thinking about polar bears: the more you try to force unwanted thoughts out of mind, the more you fixate on them. This is true enough, but Burkeman offers no real insight into how you’d replace positive thinking with the more stoic, nonjudgmental mindset he advocates. His philosophy is sound in theory but lacking in practice.

Anyone who has practiced any stripe of Buddhist meditation will find much of Burkeman’s philosophy very familiar, as what he’s basically talking about is nonattachment to ideas, likes, and dislikes. By book’s end, however, I’d gotten the slightly queasy feeling that self-help books typically leave me with, after I’ve remembered that reading about a sensible-sounding philosophy is akin to eating empty calories: a too-easy binge that doesn’t nourish long-term.

The Antidote, like other self-help books, reads quickly and easily, and it gives the false reassurance that if you simply change the way you look at the world, suddenly you’ll be tranquil and content. But the problem with replacing positive thinking with some other sort of thinking is that (as we Zennies like to say) understanding can’t help you. Reading a book about changing your mind is like reading a book about cooking: the ideas therein might whet your appetite, but they can’t replace an actual meal.

Burkeman briefly mentions going on a weeklong silent Vipassana retreat but makes no other mention of meditation practice, Buddhist or otherwise. Filling your head with the sensible ideas Burkeman outlines is fine and good, but if you want to live by those ideas, establishing a spiritual practice—something Burkeman doesn’t address—is also necessary.


And speaking about reading a book about cooking, I’ve almost finished Michael Pollan’s Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation, so expect a review of that here or on Goodreads sometime soon. Tasty!

Killdeer with three eggs

Last weekend, I took a quick trip to Columbus, Ohio to visit my family, a trip that involved more than a bit of bird-watching. In past Ohio trips, my folks and I have watched nesting yellow-crowned night herons in Bexley, ospreys in Pickerington, and eagles in Delaware. This year, my folks and I didn’t see any night herons, osprey, or eagles, but we did see a pair of killdeer at Pickerington Ponds guarding (and noisily trying to distract us from) a clutch of speckled, well-camouflaged eggs.

Three killdeer eggs

Also at Pickerington Ponds, we saw a half dozen barn swallows who had transformed the ceiling of an under-used picnic shelter in an open-air nursery.

Barn swallow at nest

The barn swallows in particular were being run ragged by their hungry offspring, whose cavernous mouths simply would not be filled, no matter how many insects their parents stuffed into them.

Barn swallow with two babies

But what impressed me more than these hard-working swallows was the steadfast tenacity of the killdeer, who had built their minimalistic scrape of a nest on the edge of a gravel path leading to a lookout blind (and which park rangers had dutifully circled with yellow CAUTION tape).

Killdeer with eggs

It takes guts (and healthy vocal cords) for two robin-sized birds to keep an intermittent stream of park visitors from inadvertently stepping on a nearly invisible nest, but that’s exactly what these two killdeer did, first trying to lure us away by feigning a broken wing (a quintessential killdeer distraction display) then noisily dive-bombing us as we tried to locate the nest they were guarding. (In the picture above, the adult killdeer is standing right next to her eggs, but we stared at the bird for a couple minutes before we realized that.)

Killdeer with water bottle

After we’d found the killdeer nest and stepped off the gravel path they were guarding to take a circuitous route behind the observation blind, we looked back and saw one of the pair investigating a water bottle my mom had set down while she was scanning the skies with her binoculars. When you’re a killdeer guarding a well-camouflaged clutch of speckled eggs, you have every reason to suspect every odd or unusual object.

Click here for more photos from Pickerington Ponds: enjoy!

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