KEEPING MY EYES OPEN, no matter what…

We just returned from the first long trip we’ve taken in two years. The pandemic quashed our plans for excursions last year, but by March of this year we were “two past two” (two weeks past the second shot) so it was time to get back in the saddle and plan a serious trip. A family member had a stroke last year and we were eager to lay our eyes on him, instead of relying on second-person reports. We could combine seeing him in Massachusetts with visiting family in New York and day trips to Manhattan by booking a flight to Boston, renting a car and driving to New York, and flying back to Seattle from JFK. We hadn’t been back to New York, where we’re both from, for several years.

So that was the plan.

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The text below alternates with pairs of photographs from the trip; each pair includes an image of the human-built environment (mostly from Manhattan) and an image from one of the gardens and parks we visited.

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A series of snafus made this trip beyond memorable. Let’s say it was successful overall, with wrinkles. The trouble started before we boarded our Alaska Airlines flight in Seattle, when I began frantically digging through my backpack for my phone and realized that it was missing. No!!! I was crushed. We called the van operator that took us to the airport and asked them to look for a phone. Just before we took off we talked with them again, and, whew! – they found my phone and promised to hold onto it until we returned.

I was grateful but my emotions were all over the place as I thought about being incommunicado for ten days, days with an itinerary that involved about twenty friends and relatives. How would I manage?

Let me say here that this is the problem of a privileged person; I know that. Many people in Sudan, for example, own a mobile phone but are malnourished. The current vaccination rate there is only 0.2% of the population. Wealthy countries like the one I live in need to step up and help. I also know that spiritually, there’s more to life than having a phone.

But back to the story.

Sitting crumpled up on a plane with a mask on for five hours doesn’t exactly sooth one’s nerves – especially in the current atmosphere of high anxiety about flying and unruly passengers who cause trouble in the middle of long flights. At least I had ample time to hatch a plan: as soon as we arrived and procured our rental car, we would bee-line to the nearest phone store where I would buy a cheap replacement to use during the trip. New York time is three hours later than Seattle time but our morning flight should leave time to accomplish the task, I reasoned.

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After arriving in Boston we located the rental stand and were directed to a shiny new Nissan. Opening the doors, we realized the car had been rubbed clean with so much chemical disinfectant that we couldn’t breathe without the windows rolled down. A few choice words flew around as we figured out how to start the car and open the trunk. “Let’s just get on the road” I thought, “this is too stressful.”

We whizzed through a city neither of us know (at least we had Joe’s smartphone for navigation) and got to the store well before closing. Of course, we soon confirmed what we knew must be true: the least expensive phones aren’t exactly cheap. Worse, I learned that one’s contacts reside on one’s phone, which in my case was 4,000 miles away, sitting in a drawer in Seattle hotel. That meant no phone numbers, no texting, and no communicating with people, unless I figured out another way to get their contact information. Needless to say, I don’t have any phone numbers memorized other than mine and Joe’s and I haven’t carried a paper phone list in years.

Watching the salesman set up the new phone, I tried to maintain a calm facade, while alternately seething, berating myself, and trying to talk myself into accepting the situation. Back and forth my mind went…

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“Can we set up my email account?”, I asked the man. But when he tried to activate it on the new phone, Gmail wanted a four-digit authorization code. Guess where they sent it – to the phone in Seattle, of course! I didn’t want to tell the strangers keeping my phone safe how to unlock my phone so they could read the code to me – that wouldn’t be smart.

Now it looked like I would be without phone numbers AND email for the entire trip. Maybe you’re thinking, cheer up, it’s healthy to disconnect! Or you might wonder why I didn’t try again, and again. One time, Gmail locked me out for two weeks because I forgot my password and tried incorrect passwords too many times. There was no recourse except to wait until the company reactivated my email account. Thinking about being locked out of email for weeks made me cringe – I couldn’t risk having that happen again. Joe came to the rescue – he had been cc’ed on the family emails with the details for our big get-together the next day. At least we had an address for the reunion and the ability to contact family.

Leaving the shop with a rather rudimentary phone and a troubled face, I tried to reason with myself as we wound our way through Boston to a restaurant. I don’t recall dinner that night but I know that once we checked into our hotel, we collapsed.

That was just Day One!

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The following day we visited the sibling whose stroke radically changed his life last fall. He had been actively immersed in academia at a prestigious college in Boston; now his days are scheduled around speech therapy appointments, meals, and exercise. But he’s as positive as he ever was, his sense of humor is intact and he’s working hard to rewire his brain and get back the skills he lost. It felt good to be with him. Reassured, I left to meet a dear friend I hadn’t seen in ten years who drove down from Maine for a rare, in-person visit. As always, we picked up right where we left off, plunging into conversations about anything and everything. It was wonderful.

I was swinging from the low of worrying about a lost phone to a high of happy connections with friends and family – but the day wasn’t over yet. The first of two big family get-togethers was that evening. We all know these reunions can be simultaneously awkward and heartwarming and our gathering fully lived up to that expectation. Exhausted from a day of emotional intensity and far from home, I slept poorly again.

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The next morning we hit the road for New York. Joe drove and I navigated, which means that I had an opportunity to unwind a little. I was grateful for Joe’s patience over the previous two days but as we got closer to the heavy traffic of metropolitan New York City at rush hour, patience wore a little thin and his long-buried New York edge emerged. Later on we would joke about needing to purge the tough, New York attitude (which one absolutely needs to get on with life in the city) before returning to the Pacific northwest, where politeness and a forgiving outlook on life are the norm.

Seattle has experienced a boom and traffic there can be beyond aggravating, a fact of life we’re both glad that we don’t deal anymore, now that we live in a more rural environment. New York traffic is another matter – it’s famously busy and you have the added stressors of unpredictable, rude, aggressive drivers and terrible roads.

We were back in the fray and we were out of practice.

A stop at a sibling’s house for conversation and snacks was a welcome respite. None of our respective siblings, nieces and nephews who reside in metropolitan New York live in Manhattan. Most live on Long Island, so we chose a centrally-located hotel there. Of course, it happened to be hosting a passel of noisy hockey fans the night we got there, as well as an undetermined number of college sports teams.

We slept poorly. Again.

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Seven more days of family visits and excursions ensued, including a hot, tiring but satisfying day in Manhattan, where we viewed inspiring art exhibits and enjoyed just sitting outside a cafe, watching the street life. There were visits to gardens in and around the city. We had an intriguing conversation with a Guyanese caregiver who was waiting for the same train we were. We endured a loud, heated argument at another family gathering that shocked everyone present. There was a poison ivy-laced walk through a preserve, pressured smartphone searches for places to eat, and hours spent navigating busy highways and sitting in traffic jams. We took a spontaneous tour of our old neighborhood, which we hadn’t seen in nine years. We enjoyed a richly rewarding afternoon of coffee, conversation, and a garden visit with John Todaro, a fine art photographer I’ve admired for nine years. That was a high point!

We were struck repeatedly by the intensity and scope of sensory input during the trip: noisy people, rich food, hectic traffic, unfamiliar sights, strong smells, muggy, oppressive heat we could hardly bear, beautiful skies – our senses were assaulted with a range of impressions the like of which we hadn’t experienced in a long time.

We’re both retired now. We live in a quiet, extraordinarily beautiful place that always seems peaceful – even the weather changes slowly here and rarely throws us for a loop. Over the last year our lives shrank; sensory and social input was more limited than we had ever experienced. On this trip we felt as if we had jumped straight into a fire.

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Eventually we settled down, slept better, and began to relax. Even the horrid smell in the rental car began to dissipate. But true to form, an unexpected event threw us off again, this time on the flight home. A passenger who apparently ingested something he shouldn’t have was talking rudely at full volume, then became very quiet. I noticed him struggling to maintain an upright position as he headed down the aisle to the bathroom. I heard the stewards call for medical help. After a half hour or so, apparently they determined that it was safe to continue on to Seattle; the flight didn’t have to be diverted. At the gate we were met by a uniformed phalanx of police and medics. With rescue truck lights flashing, medical kits, and handcuffs at hand, the pros handled the situation with aplomb, diplomatically convincing the unmasked man to exit the aircraft. Finally, we deplaned and called the van to take us to the lot where our car was parked. It arrived with a thrilling gift on board – my phone! The battery was dead but oh, the familiar feel of the case felt good in my hand!

I thought about the hundreds of emails in my inbox. They would be deleted, answered, and dealt with soon enough.

Heading home through a Pacific Northwest rainstorm, we sighed with relief when we pulled into the driveway. The air was fresh and smelled good. Everything was in place. We were home.

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As stressed as I was from the emotional roller coaster and lack of sleep, my eyes were always open wide. Again and again, I looked and I thought about what I saw. I was inspired by beautiful paintings, imposing sculptures, interesting photographs. A store called Printed Matter with 15,000 artists’ books on the shelves offered more food for thought.

But not only art inspired me.

There was delicious food. There were energizing interactions with strangers – the warm, spontaneous, to-the-point kind that New York is famous for and we miss dearly. There were heart-warming visits with family – little ones we’d never met and grown-ups we hadn’t seen in over a decade. There were gardens galore, filled with irises, peonies, wisteria and water lilies. My ears delighted at the sound of birds I grew up with, singing their hearts out at the height of spring: cardinals, mockingbirds, Baltimore orioles – even Blue jays and Red-bellied woodpeckers made me stop and smile. The owner of the neighborhood pizza joint we used to frequent recognized Joe instantly after an absence of nine years (and oh, the taste of a real New York slice!). We dined on Peking duck served by white-gloved waiters, wolfed down Trinidadian roti from a busy lunch spot in Little Guyana (a neighborhood in Queens), and savored perfect Agedashi tofu at a Japanese restaurant.

But back to the point: returning to the practice of paying close attention, no matter what disruptions and distractions are going on, is a practice that keeps me going. Look at this amazing world we live in, study what you see, watch the light, think about how shapes relate to each other, examine details. This is a refuge. Not an escape from anything, but a refuge. Be nourished by it, every day.

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COLOR!

A color challenge/photo challenge…so many colors…so many approaches…let’s just see what happens…

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Color is

a Sol Lewitt piece at the 59th St. Columbus Circle subway station in New York, and

it’s an urban industrial sunset on Staten Island.

Color marches up a sculpture by John Fleming and soars

against bluest heaven.

Color is graffiti in Seattle, too – and the intricate thread-work

on an ancient Silk Road Ikat coat, tacked to a museum wall.

Color grows organically on a rusty old truck

behind a nursery in the Skagit Valley (where soon miles of tulips and daffodils

will set the evening aglow).

It plays games

in a midtown New York City store window.

Color is isolated

by a rubber glove dropped in a Seattle alley;

and color

dances

when sunbeams illuminate a torn leaf

in my red cabinet.

Color sweetens the deal in pink and

purple stripes: red osier dogwood twigs blended, in camera.

It reflects late day sunlight  – 

silver and gold: a banner night. It 

swirls

in choppy waves across Chihuly glass

in Tacoma. 

Mid-day summer-sun sets color down

flat

on tabletops set out on Seattle sidewalks.

Color ricochets through glasses in an old ship’s galley,

mushes together as it lays exposed

to the elements,

stuck

on a car door,

abandoned in a field,

somewhere.

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Photographs taken with a Samsung camera phone & a Sony NEX digital camera, in NYC, Seattle, and other locations in the Pacific northwest.

Find more colorful Daily Post Weekly Photo Challenges here.

Weekly Photo Challenge

This is a very late weekly photo challenge, because I have been away, back in New York.  For two days we stayed in a house with no power. After that we had a hotel room, complete with electricity, but between the family events, my slow netbook and a desperate need to spend time revisiting some favorite places in the city, I didn’t post last week.

The Weekly Photo Challenge from WordPress is “Renewal” and Jakesprinter’s Weekly Photo Challenge is “Surroundings”. I have definitely been in unusual surroundings in the past week. And being in New York for the first time since moving west earlier this year, I experienced a renewal of my love for new York and a renewal of my intentions in moving out here. Yes, I miss the pleasures of the city, but the pleasures here are sweet, too.

We took off into the sunrise – a promising start. However, the NYC forecast called for a “significant storm” to hit the region just as we arrived. I was anxious.  Sure enough, just as we began our descent into JFK, the plane suddenly pulled up.  The monitor map traced a huge circle away from the airport, as ice flew by the shaking wing at my side.

But of course we made it, arriving at a messy airport still dealing with Hurricane Sandy clean-up. Many other flights were cancelled due to this second storm – we just made it in time.

The surroundings were chaotic. This we knew! We had called ahead to be sure our rental car had a full tank of gas because of the reports (all true) that people were waiting in long lines for 3-5 hours to fill their tanks. We drove onto the Belt, slushy with snow and snarled with traffic – what a welcome!

We were staying with family on Long Island. It was Day 9 without power for them, and it was plenty cold outside. “Surroundings” began to take on a new meaning.

We huddled around the fire and ate a simple meal of pasta – thank god the house has a gas stove. A picnic cooler outside kept perishable food cool. We turned in early, buried under quilts, tired but cozy.

The next morning we lent a hand in the yard. A telephone pole in the front yard had snapped in two and the transformer now dangled precariously, its wires weaving a complicated web through a prized plum tree, which had split down the middle. More wires traced a long arc across the driveway. We sawed off  limbs to free the wires, and hoped LIPA (the hated Long Island Power Authority) would get to our street soon.

Back inside, we warmed up around the fire again, stuffing our wet gloves with newspaper (enough stories of suffering!) and setting them by the fire to dry.

The village had power, so we drove down to a packed Starbucks to recharge phones and laptops (and recharge my brain with the daily double espresso). A thoughtful customer had plugged a power strip into the wall outlet – otherwise, we could have waited an hour or more to charge our phones. Later we went to a rehearsal dinner – this trip was in honor of a nephew’s wedding, taking place the next day at a catering hall, which happily had power. The surroundings were convivial, the food was incredible, and the wine flowed. I guess that was in the opposite order.

The next day we checked into a hotel. Our reservations were made months ago – lucky for us, because there were no hotel rooms available on Long Island. Our hotel was packed with line and tree workers from all over the country; a scrawled sign on the door read, “No Rooms”. The thought of getting ready for a wedding in the dark? Not too good. So we were glad to have the room. The wedding and reception went off without a hitch, and after another day spent with family, we finally had time to jump on the train to Manhattan.

As soon as I emerged from the subway I felt renewed. These surroundings – the crowds, the noise, the cabs and bikes and vendors – will always draw and energize me.

Another family get together was planned for midtown, so we wandered through Central Park. We had to leave downtown – my preference – for another day.

The park looked surprisingly intact – I only saw one large tree lost to the hurricane. But the Central Park Conservancy website says over 800 of its 20,000 trees were lost in the storm.

That night we ate at John’s Shanghai in midtown with my sister-in-law, who’s from Shanghai. She ordered of course, and it was funny to hear how she and the waiter began speaking English, then added a few Chinese words, and gradually morphed into full Chinese as they negotiated the details. Their famous soup dumplings were delicious.

The next day we were able to spend a few hours downtown.

First, the Rubin Museum, which always renews me:

Then a train down to the World Trade Center area, where I worked.

One World Trade Center is looking good. There are lights on in my old office building, on the right. It felt good to touch base, but it feels great not to be working here anymore. Talk about stressful surroundings – constant worries about security, never ending construction – we even had to put up with snipers on our roof one day when Obama visited.

Over in Battery Park, which took the brunt of the storm surge, it looked like nothing had ever happened. I suspect that had we walked the length of the park, down to the ferry terminal, it would have been another story.

Here though, boats were safely tied up and lights sparkled across the Hudson River as evening fell. I used to come over here after work to walk and be renewed by my surroundings. Now, they inspired me again. But inside, I felt disoriented – perfectly relaxed, alert and at home in New York, and yet not. I was a tourist now, this was not my home any more. Sill, I felt more attached to the city than to my new home in the west.

I wished I had more time in the city, but this was our last day. We topped it off with Kobe burgers at Zaitzeff and headed over to Financier, where I bought as many of their outrageous pastries as I could tuck into my bag for the plane ride back. Chocolate eclair, Madelaines, Apple Gallette, Macaroon…umm.

Our plane took off at dusk the next day and the moon was new so the skies were bright with stars. I nodded off after a glass of wine and woke up over Montana to see a mysterious glowing curtain hanging below the Big Dipper – I stared and stared at this weird shape shifter, and finally I was convinced that this really was the Aurora Borealis – the Northern Lights. Of course I tried to get a picture, but it’s just a green blob. What are the chances of waking up from a nap on a six hour flight just as your plane flies by the Northern Lights? What rare surroundings!

The next day was quiet, and I didn’t get out of the house until almost dark. I drove over to the waterfront and watched a beautiful sunset. The ducks were content. The surroundings were lovely. I felt pretty content, too.

And yesterday morning, a foggy dawn gave way to clear skies. I had just enough time after taking care of business for a walk on the Coal Creek Falls trail on Cougar Mountain.

The surroundings were magical.

Moss glowed on cedars, aspens and maples.

Mushrooms sprouted.

Lichens dripped with moisture.

Leaves dangled, caught by branches as they fell to the ground.

The sun set.

I felt renewed.

More information about these Weekly Photo Challenges, and many more submissions, can be found here:

http://dailypost.wordpress.com/2012/11/08/weekly-photo-challenge-renewal/

http://jakesprinters.wordpress.com/2012/11/10/sunday-post-surroundings/

APP

A few days ago I downloaded an Android app called Photogrid. It puts your phone photos into collages.

A shake of the phone produces a new arrangement (you pick frame styles & colors) –

Here’s a grid of road trips in the Pacific Northwest:

Here’s another arrangement of the same images:

This one is a mash-up of

Buddhas,

flora,

rain on the car window (near Seattle of course)

a hand,

and street shots in New York & Seattle:

I don’t think you can change the placement of the images by dragging them around – that would be even better.

But sometimes random choices produce juxtapositions you wouldn’t have thought of, and they’re really nice –

(yes, John Cage figured that out long ago).

I think I like this one best:

And the app is free!

Everyday Life is Extraordinary – Weekly Photo Challenge

This week’s Photo Challenge is about showing people at their everyday activities. Here are some images of people in everyday situations (to them, I believe) which looked pretty cool (to me).

These men paused to talk in Manhattan, at the Staten Island Ferry plaza. Old friends who took different directions? Or strangers rehashing a Yankees game?

This man is painting an ad on the side of a building in lower Manhattan on a freezing cold day in January. His precision was amazing. He wore big headphones – blocking noise?  Listening to a song about mischief?

I don’t think they had any idea how beautiful their choreography looked from above. Taken from the High Line, NY.

A Buddhist nun and her friend buy flowers at Pike Place Market in Seattle. Very possibly an everyday activity for them – but to my eye a delicious image. (Too bad it was taken on the run with the phone).

An ice storm closed Sea Tac Airport in Seattle. When it finally re-opened there was lots of work to do.  An ordinary day for them – just keeping us from falling through the air from an unacceptable height.

Everyday for them, joy for me. Street musicians in downtown Philadelphia.

Cutting stems for a bouquet at Pike Place Market. Another day for her, but for me – well, almost a Pre-Raphealite moment.

Weekly Photo Challenge: Near and Far

At the beach – it’s where near and far intertwine. Walking on the beach, the broad view envelops me and the close-up obsesses me. Back and forth, back and forth between dazzling intricacies of  tiny shells, rocks and littoral animals, and the equally dazzling dance of water and light on the horizon.

Starfish, shells and beachcombers on Sanibel Island on Florida’s west coast.

Another winter beach, a colder latitude: Whidbey Island, Washington. Giant bullwhip kelp washes up at Ebey’s Landing as a gull wings across the cold bay.

On this June day my job in New York City had taken me to a home care agency on Long Island’s southern shore. After investigating and interviewing all day, I took off for nearby Fire Island. I put in long hours and traveled many miles on that job, but often, at the end of the day, I was happy to skip dinner and explore. It was worth it.

They grow kelp big in the Pacific! Camano Island, Washington.

Distant sea stacks seen through driftwood at La Push, Olympic Peninsula, Washington. Selenium style processing in Lightroom.

A beach of a different sort: on the industrial north shore of New York City’s Staten Island, railroad tracks curve out of view towards the Bayonne Bridge. Built in 1931, it’s one of the longest steel arch bridges in the world, but it won’t be tall enough for mammoth container ships that the widening of the Panama Canal will bring to the port. The plan is to build a new roadway higher up within the existing arch, then tear down the old road. Somehow I doubt the view from this spot will change much – the city is full of forgotten corners with compelling views that haven’t changed in decades. From many of these forgotten corners, the close-up view is of garbage and detritus, but look in the distance and there’s gold.