It’s mostly no fun, this drought California’s been having, but there are upsides. One can, for example, breeze into Yosemite in early March, in a compact car, without getting so much as a warning about tire chains. Once there, you find that — what’s this? — the park is pretty much empty, at least by Yosemite standards. (Yosemite is so very rarely empty.) Yesterday, I rock-hopped up and behind Lower Fall and sat there for awhile, all by myself, just because. You can do a lot of good thinking in a spot like that, with nobody else bothering you, no intrusions save the roar of all that water, tumbling into one of the world’s most picturesque valleys. Days like that, you don’t get too many of. It was kind of perfect, until I looked up at all that rock and realized how very dead I would be, should even a shard break loose.
Hang around a little and you’ll learn to expect the unexpected from Houston, now the fourth-largest city in the country and one of our most dynamic population centers. Anything can happen in Houston, anything usually does. It’s fun that way. On this stormy Saturday, driving through Surfside Beach, I noticed a slew of surfers struggling in and out of wetsuits at the small parking lot out by the jetty that marks the southwestern boundary of this small village, up on stilts along the Gulf of Mexico. Turns out, the waves here can be serious. When they are, the water fills up with an impressive number of surfers, many of them transplants from surfier climes (for instance this guy, an Orange County, Calif. native) looking for a taste of the old country. Today, they certainly got one.
After years of resting on its laurels, New Orleans is finally getting with the third wave coffee program. Yes, it was grinding some fairly good bean back when much of America was wandering in the Folgers’/Maxwell House/Sanka desert, but as is so often the case here, further change has been slow to come. While many of the cafes quite suddenly popping up around town are to be applauded more for their efforts than for the finished product, there are a couple of standouts. Most notable is Cherry Coffee, a pop-up tucked inside Stein’s Deli, down in the Lower Garden District. Here, barista/owner Lauren Fink produces at a level you’d be hard-pressed to match elsewhere. Definitely go see her.
The rains are here. I noticed, leaving Union Station today, that the roses are even more drop-dead than usual. How nice it is to live in a city that figures the train station ought to have gardens. Rose gardens. Lines of jacaranda trees, too, leaving the north courtyard carpeted in purple during the periodic blooms. Walls of bougainvillea. Waves of bird of paradise. Lines of stately palms. The building itself is a terrific piece of period architecture, often referred to as the last great train station in North America, but the property itself is a colorful showcase of Southern California flora. Los Angeles is growing up, though — a major expansion is planned, much will change. The station’s classic beauty will be preserved, apparently. I’m keeping fingers crossed for the gardens, too.
Fair warning: Clumsy attempt at honesty ahead. Thx.
Many of us would likely change at least a thing or two about about the way we grew up. For most of my life, I wanted to change everything. The isolationist cult that raised me was and remains an abominable place, lost people wasting their lives inflicting needless pain on each other and to no specific end.
As life goes on, however, the striking resemblance between our coterie of miserables and the great big world out here is difficult to ignore. It’s all a crapshoot. Growing up is hard and terrible in all sorts of ways for too many of us. My own weird and painful coming of age seems less and less unusual.
In its twisted way, this is what healing looks like, I guess. I remember so many of the good things now. I am awake to the fact that this cruel place was also one of rich tradition, of art and singing and poetry and love of nature, all things handed down to us at the youngest age, things that shaped me and stay so closely with me today, no matter how old I get or how far I run.
At any moment, it can all come back, a sudden flash from a past life. Walking along Lake Michigan a few weeks ago, I found gentians, bright blue, doing their best to stand out among billowing dune grasses. The wistful Helen Hunt Jackson fall poem, which someone set to music and we sang in three-part harmony each September, came flooding in.
The goldenrod is yellow
The corn is turning brown
The trees in apple orchards with fruit are bending down
The gentian’s bluest fringes are curling in the sun
In dusty pods the milkweed its hidden silk has spun
Hearing the words, remembering the notes, I am walking, once again, in those old Catskill woods. I am kicking at fallen leaves, delighting in that first chill, watching as the light moves from summer to autumn, eagerly anticipating another school year, tasting the cider from Hudson Valley apples, picked in our own orchard and squeezed on the old wooden press. We were always so happy in the fall. Even in the darkest places, sometimes the light just won’t be kept out.
The problem with negative people is not that they are a bummer. Life is very often a bummer, for reasons. At issue is that negative people are so rarely negative about anything that matters. Traffic. That music they were playing in the restaurant, which was awful. Los Angeles, and how we do not care for it. Cold weather. Hot weather. Hipsters. Douchebags. Hipster douchebags.
If it’s complaining you’re wanting, how about take time out of your busy bitching schedule to moan about, say, income inequality. Get worried about the decline of public education in this country. Or the diet of weak poisons that is our food supply (Rachel Carson really nailed that one, didn’t she). The way humility, compassion, empathy and too many other redemptive character traits have fallen so far out of fashion.
But that’s not what this is about, is it? This is about you asking the world, every single day, WHY AREN’T YOU MORE ATTENTIVE TO MY NEEDS, YOU GUYS, as if you were the only person on earth asking this, yet time and again you ask, wasting precious moments you could be spending doing simple math problems, such as, if everyone sits there stubbornly waiting for the universe to bend to their will, how many people will be left to do the bending?
Really, truly, I am deeply sorry that you have yet to learn the simple truth that we all must accept at some point before dying, that we are the chief architects of our own happiness, yesterday, today, tomorrow and forever. Kindly go away now — do not return until you have learned this.
With the news out of Japan today, I spent most of the afternoon thinking about that day in March of 2011 when the earth moved, moved again and wouldn’t stop moving for a week after that. The Tohoku earthquake was my first, an incredible event that destroyed so many lives and ended up changing mine almost completely. For the first time since, I find myself reading the column I wrote for the New York Post about the experience, typed up the evening after in a fog of exhaustion and uncertainty.
Tokyo is usually one of the few places on earth that can make New York seem about as exciting as Des Moines. This past Saturday morning, you could have heard a pin drop in the lanes of Shinjuku, a neighborhood that contains the busiest train station in the world and looks, after dark, like a set from a movie about the future.
Besides tangled heaps of bicycles and the occasional crack in a wall, you’d never know what had happened here, just hours ago.
Homeowners tended to their flower boxes and tiny side yards, groups of uniform-clad students headed off to their morning lessons. Delivery men serviced vending machines, sweepers cleaned the streets. It was almost like the city hadn’t witnessed one of the most terrifying earthquakes in recent memory.
It was a brave front, but even Tokyo, a city like New York, a city that has seen nearly everything, ended up having a hard time keeping up appearances.
Later in the day, with darkness setting in, Shinjuku’s nightlife district, with its porn shops and pachinko parlors and Indian restaurants and whisky bars, seemed oddly quiet. Restaurants that were normally open twenty-four hours were completely shuttered. The convenience store up the block started to look picked-over. Even Starbucks closed at six o’clock. Groups of people were standing outside the train station, nervously watching the rescue efforts up north on the big screen.
After a day of seemingly non-stop shaking (more than 100 aftershocks have been reported in the last couple of days, with more being added to the list all the time) you have to figure that the city has the right to be worried. Add to that more bad news from the north of the city, where a tsunami and its horrible aftermath had already been enough tragedy for a lifetime; now, there was the threat of nuclear meltdown at a power plant just a couple hundred miles away.
As I write this, the ground seems to be moving again, ever so slightly, as it has been for the past hour. I’m on the 47th floor of the Park Hyatt, looking down at the twinkling lights of one of the world’s most endless cities. The news says yet another considerable quake struck the already afflicted northeast region this evening. I’m beginning to wonder if a blanket, a pillow and a bench down in the 1st floor lobby might be best. It would be a lot more comfortable than the chair I slept on last night.
When the earth started moving on Friday, an event that would go down as the biggest earthquake in Japan’s recorded history, an 9.0-on-the-Richter-scale disaster that laid waste to swaths of the country’s northeastern region, I was aboard the SS Columbia, a replica of an early 20th century ocean liner. You’ll find the ship deep inside the DisneySea theme park; one of two parks at the Tokyo Disney Resort, just outside of Central Tokyo.
With the weather in my favor and a free afternoon, I had rounded up a couple of friends and hopped the Keiyo Line for the 15 minute journey out from Tokyo Station. We’d barely been there an hour, before the earth started to shake. When the boat started jerking back and forth, we joked. Was this the hourly show, maybe? Then it got worse. Everyone shut up. It was a strange feeling, being on a boat during an earthquake; a combination of a rough day at sea and running aground, over and over again.
We’d been inside the ship’s Roosevelt Lounge, drinking irish coffees. The girls waiting on the bar crowd sprang into action, ordering us under any available tables, signaling for us to hold our hands over our heads, all the while – and I swear this – bowing, smiling, giggling, apologizing for the inconvenience.
Sorry. Sorry. Sorry. Sorry. Over and over again. (Japan has got to be one of the few places in the world plagued by earthquakes where the locals will run around apologizing to you. While the earth is shaking.)
Minutes later, we were evacuated outdoors, where tens of thousands of park-goers were already out on the pavement, visibly stunned. English speaking cast members circled back every few minutes to update us, to shoot the breeze. Where are you from? New York. I love New York!
We didn’t know yet, but this was just been the beginning.
Minutes later, we were all back on the ground, being urged away from anything that might fall on us. Trees, lampposts, statues. Everyone was screaming, terrified. Again, the shaking went on for more than two minutes. Again, the park staff, clearly trained and retrained in earthquake preparedness, circulated throughout the crowd like concerned mother hens looking after their chicks.
In the end, this had been another serious jolt, not unlike the first. This being Japan, very little happened. A few cracks in the sidewalk, the odd street lamp bent, a speaker tower knocked over. I would certainly have plenty of time to evaluate the park firsthand; the resort is located on a rather isolated patch on Tokyo Bay, and with roads and trains shut down in the aftermath, those of us here, and there were tens of thousands of us, had little choice but to sit tight and wait for things to go back to normal.
Not that they would, anytime soon. The double quakes were just the beginning of a twelve-hour adventure during which the ground could barely stay still. With our hotel all the way across the city in Shinjuku and no hope of even a cab, all we could do was sit there and feel the earth moving. As the hours wore on, park goers scavenged cardboard boxes and plastic bags from staff, creating makeshift tents in the main plaza at the center of the park, in the shadow of the luxurious Hotel MiraCosta.
All night, we waited. Eventually, inspectors allowed restaurants to reopen, but with safety still a concern, kitchens did not. Crowds of people jammed in to the Café Portofino, an Italian restaurant overlooking a beautiful manmade lake where gondolieri normally offer rides to lovestruck young couples.
Tonight, there wasn’t much romance in the air. Just the scent of brewing coffee and the sound of hordes of thankful refugees ripping open packages of Minnie Mouse-shaped chocolates, scavenged by staff from a nearby gift shop. All night, I was reminded of September 11 in New York, when all many of us could do to help was sit there and wait and be grateful.
Then again, on September 11th, I distinctly remember downing six margaritas with a neighbor, there on our downtown Brooklyn stoop, trying to forget. Yesterday, I would have killed for just one.
Photo: Tokyo & Mt. Fuji from the 47th floor, March 13, 2011
"I’d say I’m developing an acute fondness for the region, but in reality, it’s more like a feverish obsession," I wrote about Northern Michigan (and its lakes, great and small) in an article for the New York Post. That was a year ago; nothing’s changed. (Just back from another terrific week in that part of the world.) Moving to California, I was curious — would being surrounded by the West’s off-the-charts natural beauty make me forget all about the Great Lakes? Not really. If anything, I now have an even deeper appreciation for the region, particularly Lake Superior, that rugged, inland sea that is quite possibly the best place to be on the continent when the leaves begin to change, an orgy of beauty occurring so far from so many that you often end up being the lone observer. Next fall, I’m going back for the entire show.
The photo’s of Lake of the Clouds, Porcupine Mountains, Michigan on a blustery October evening. Tremendous.