(Last modified 23 May 1997.)

Wanderjahr: Week 36

Locations: Swarthmore, PA; New York City, NY
Dates: 4/20/97 - 4/26/97

Sunday I woke up too early again but for once managed to get back to sleep. Got up around noon, and Jim and I just made it to DuPont in time to see the weekly campus movie. Afterward, spent a while talking about the movie and general chatting with Melissa B, Joe, and Jim; eventually we went to Greylock for food (courtesy of Renato's), shanghaiing Anna on the way. Alas, I missed both performances of Melissa R's chorus concert. Bad Jed.

After food and more talk, Melissa and Joe headed off to do homework, and I wrote my column -- having not started it 'til 9 Sunday night. (Of course, first I had to do a long-overdue backup of my hard drive, so I didn't really get started 'til significantly later.) Blocked almost immediately; fortunately talking with Jim pulled me out of the block, so I wrote a draft, did some Web research (and checked email), edited, uploaded, and was done by 1:45 in the morning. At which point I left to go walk and talk with Melissa B. Another enjoyable hour-long walk in the Crum meant I didn't get to sleep 'til after 3 again... Sigh. Woke around 9:30, showered, packed/reorganized my stuff, and was just barely ready to go when Joe called around 11:30 to say he was ready to drive to NYC (we'd agreed beforehand that he would give me a ride).

Talked with Joe through most of the trip. Arrived at Bruce's office at Columbia around 1:30 or 2; talked with Bruce about his research, saw his cool Web pages, had early dinner/late lunch nearby. We then took the bus to the residence of a friend of Bruce's, where we had the shortest and probably the silliest Seder I've ever been to -- kinda fun, but not what I'm used to. Most of the discussion involved deciding how best to skip ahead to the next glass of wine. I'm used to there being a core of fairly observant Jews at Seders... The Haggadah was somewhat old-fashioned and very hard to follow, which made it all the more tempting to skip most of it. I spent most of the ensuing dinner talking with one of the other attendees about old movies, most of which I hadn't seen (and several of which I'd never heard of). Had gefilte fish for the first time in years, confirming my suspicion that I don't like it much.

Eventually excused myself to make some phone-calls to iron out details of who I'd see when later in week. Then Bruce and I took a cab to his grandmother's place in the upper east side (where he lives), and went to sleep. Got lots and lots of sleep, and woke feeling much better.

Lazed about, had a bagel, read bits of the paper. Discovered SGI stock had slid to about 12, down from 19 last time I looked, 27 last time I bought any, and 45 a year and a half ago. Sigh. Met Bruce's grandmother, known as Oma; spry, cheerful, friendly, sharp, and welcoming, and looks ever so slightly like Katherine Hepburn in profile.

Bruce and I spent the afternoon wandering through Central Park, where I'd never been. Lovely trees just coming into leaf. Lay in sun at Sheep Meadow for an hour or two. Birds in full song. Lovely place.

Had a late lunch at a nearby Malaysian place, with a delicious dessert: Chinese-style pancake (like the scallion cakes at Tien Fu back home), layered around chopped peanuts, corn, and something else (maybe just sugar). Mmm.

dinosaur photoGradually began to get the hang of Manhattan geography as Bruce pointed out how the streets are laid out. (It's so much easier to figure out geography in cities with numbered streets...) We stopped at the Natural History Museum to see cool dinosaur bones and a nifty information kiosk, then through the park to the castle. Got there just in time to be kicked out when they closed. Back to Bruce's place, where I spent a couple hours updating my long-overdue-for-updating journal.

Stopped to help prepare dinner, which was fondue. One of Oma's friends came to dinner, and much French was spoken by all but me (though I did catch a word or two here and there, and people translated for me where needed). After dinner and dessert, I made more planning phone calls, then did email, finished updating journal, went to sleep.

Wednesday we sat around through the morning and early afternoon, then zipped down to a computer store, where I purchased a US Robotics "Palm Pilot," the tiniest palmtop I've yet seen. A little pricy, but way less than a Newton, and I think will make a good (and more portable) replacement for my calendar-book. Still getting the hang of it; reserving judgment 'til I've had more time to play with it.

Cloisters tree photoGot Bruce's glasses fixed, had lunch, eventually headed up to The Cloisters. Which were lovely, especially the Treasury room, but I only had an hour there before I had to hop back on the subway to make it downtown to meet David R for dinner and a movie. The other person who was supposed to meet us there didn't show up, but we had a fine dinner (though my bad-service demon caught up to me finally -- slow service even though we said we were in a hurry, and the veggie chili I ordered was delivered as beef chili even though the computer said it was veggie) and made it to the movie theatre just in time. After the movie, sat and talked in a small Chinese restaurant (David had a soda and we split the complimentary dessert we'd gotten at dinner) for an hour or so, then took the subway uptown (that is, north). And I spent the next two or three hours writing up the past couple of weeks...

General musing, not prompted by anyone in particular but something I've noticed several times over the past few months: in realtime conversation, I often need a certain amount of time to formulate comments and responses (especially on deep/emotional issues, but also just in general). Since it never occurs to me to say "be quiet for a minute, I need to think," people almost always interpret my silence as discomfort or boredom or some other negative emotion; also, I frequently find myself talking with people who don't leave enough (or long enough) gaps in what they say to give me time to come up with responses. Which tends to make conversations kinda one-sided, which is frustrating on both sides. I think I need to learn to give some indication that I need a second to catch my thoughts...

And there I stopped for three weeks. I don't know if anyone's even bothering to read this any more... But in case anyone is still reading, I do intend to keep this travelogue more up-to-date from now on, and to add to it more regularly rather than a few weeks at a time.

Chrysler photoGoing back to Thursday 4/24: had lunch with a friend from high school, Craig Peters, at Rockefeller Center, in a brewpub-type place much like the ones I'm used to at home. Hadn't seen Craig for many years, possibly as many as ten; was great to talk with him again, even if only over lunch. He's one of several people I know who's taking positive steps to make his life simpler and better; I definitely approve of a job switch that replaces a one-and-a-half-hour commute on the train with a six-mile bike ride...

St. Patrick's spire photoLots of Big Public Art in the area. Got photos developed, took lots more, spent some time in St. Patrick's Cathedral. Still haven't learned how to take good pictures of stained glass; also haven't learned what photographs well with/without a flash. Some day.

St. Patrick's door photoSpent the afternoon listening to Oma tell stories about various bits of her life, always an enjoyable activity, especially when the teller's had a long and full life.

Left a note in Oma's guestbook, then took all my stuff on the (completely packed) subway downtown to John H's in the East Village. (I've got to learn to pack lighter.) The neighborhood was a big contrast to the Upper East Side -- somewhat grimier, lots more bustling activity and energy on the streets. Hadn't seen John in quite some time; he's done a lot of different things since college. We chatted for a while about the restaurant business, me taking notes for the screenplay. Later, we stopped at a hole-in-the-wall place nearby for a "wrap" -- an eggroll-sized micro-burrito, quite good but rather expensive.

Brooklyn glass photoNext day, John gave me a Seybold pass (the big publishing convention was in town that week, and I'd been considering stopping by for a bit). I lazed the morning away and then took the subway to the Brooklyn Museum, apparently a well-kept secret since other New Yorkers I talked to had never heard of it. David R (who works there) and I had lunch at the museum cafeteria, and David gave me a very brief tour of the place, including some lovely stained glass. I continued to wander about for 45 minutes or so, including a quick stop at the (disappointing but extremely well-lit) Rodin exhibit on the hidden 5th floor.

layout photoLeft in a rush to get over to the Jacob Javits convention center (over on the west side of Manhattan) in time for a couple hours' worth of Seybold. Spent an hour and a half walking briskly through the exhibit hall on a path designed to give me a glimpse of every vendor; besides just looking at stuff, I was hoping to find John, who was running the New York Macintosh Users Group booth. Nothing at the booths was terribly exciting as far as I was concerned, alas -- focus almost entirely on color management systems, color printing, digital photography, and desktop publishing software.

Helped John break down the NYMUG booth. We couldn't get a cab to take us and the boxes of stuff back to the company John works for, across town, so John flagged down a passing 4x4 and recruited the people in it (who turned out to by NYMUG members) to take us there (for a fee, of course). A long nerve-wracking drive through downtown NYC during rush hour ensued, finally resulting in our being deposited on an appropriate streetcorner. We chatted with people at John's work, then had dinner and managed to get to Shakespeare & Co. not too much after Anne Lamott had started her reading there (from her new novel). Unfortunately, she didn't read terribly well, but I did greatly enjoy the Q&A session afterward, in which she talked much like she writes in Bird by Bird -- smart, sarcastic, funny, a little scatterbrained-sounding (but in a good way). I wanted to talk with her afterward, but the line for autographs stretched across the room, and I didn't have anything of hers with me to get autographed (having not known she was in town 'til a couple days previous), so I decided to write her instead. We headed back to John's place; I picked up my stuff and got on yet another ridiculously crowded subway to Columbia.

I found David R playing strategy games with the Columbia wargames club; wasn't really in the mood to join them even if I hadn't been too late to do so, so I sat in a corner and wrote email (it's very nice sometimes to be able to do email while offline). When the games were over, we walked to David's place; I dialed up briefly, then went to bed.

statue photopeacock photoSaturday I spent some time wandering the city with David R. We looked at Grant's Tomb (where some Civil War reenactment stuff was going on) and various works of public art. Also the cathedral of John the Divine (when complete, will be the biggest cathedral in the US, maybe in the world), near which we saw a peacock flirting with a pigeon. Very odd. In the middle of the day I met Aaron H for lunch at Meskerem, a scrumptious little Ethiopian place in the west 40s (or early 50s). Much much better than the restaurant of the same name in DC (presumably no relation, as it's the name of an Ethiopian holiday and apparently a common restaurant name). We talked, among other things, about Mike Leigh's improvisational filmmaking style, which made me see that night's movie (when David and I got to it, after a nice but long walk along Riverside to see his mother's handiwork in the flowerbeds there) in a very different light than I would have otherwise.

After the movie David headed home and I drifted off deeper into the East Village to see a show starting at midnight. (TMLMTBGB plays every Friday and Saturday night at midnight, at a tiny below-street-level venue called Nada. Go see it.) The show ended a little after 1; I, feeling disjointed for reasons having nothing to do with the show's quality, wandered off to find the F train uptown at the station a couple blocks away from the theatre. Only the F train wasn't running in that direction from that station. I started off on the long walk northwest to the next station it was running from -- shifting between enjoying being in the City alone at night (feeling very adult and independent) and being a bit scared because I had no idea how safe any of the neighborhoods I was going through were. Found another F station, went in to see whether the F train ran uptown from there. It didn't, so I walked on. But apparently I got turned around while in that station, 'cause twenty minutes later I found myself at Delancey Street station, which my subway map told me was well to the southeast of Nada. It was past 2 am by now; I was exhausted and discombobulated, and couldn't face walking for another 40 minutes back to the station I wanted to get to. So I went into the Delancey station and took the advice posted there: I took the F train south into Brooklyn, waited on the platform there, and then took the uptown F train from there. After two more episodes of switching trains (involving waiting for ten minutes on various platforms, and reading most of the screenplay I'd bought to read on the trip back to Swat), I arrived back at Columbia at 3 on Sunday morning. I suspect the whole episode was my just deserts, as I'd spent the previous few days bragging that I now understood the NYC subway system and laughing at my first attempt to use it, about eight years ago, when I went the wrong way and ended up in Brooklyn in the middle of the night... Perhaps I'll turn it into a tradition, whenever I visit New York.


Movies, Books, etc.

The English Patient
At least as good the second time around. I caught some subtleties I'd missed the first time around (such as early mentions of the Count's name) and in general had more room to relax and enjoy the scenery without having to keep constantly alert to follow the plot (it also helped that I didn't miss the first five minutes of the film this time around).

Woman in the Dunes
Allegorical Japanese art film about the constraint and petty struggles of life in trying to maintain civilization in the face of chaos; reminded me more of The Prisoner than of anything else. Was surprised to find that it was (intentionally) funny in several places, and more coherent plot-wise than I expected; still, it's significantly longer than it needs to be, and if you've seen The Prisoner it doesn't say much that's new.

Secrets and Lies
Intriguing, often quite good movie which I'm told is more coherent than Nichols' usual style, since he started with a bit more of a script than usual (so it was a tad less improvised than his other movies, which I haven't seen). Some very nice moments, some good (though often a bit one-note) acting, some interesting characters and situations; worth seeing, but not as stunning as some people had told me.

Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind
Billed as "thirty plays in sixty minutes," this New York rendition of the constantly-changing Neo-Futurist show from Chicago (motto: "Futurism Now!") isn't quite as jaw-droppingly amazing as I recall the Chicago version being when I saw it six years ago, but that may just be because I had more of an idea what to expect. It still went from the short and ultra-silly ("Good Luck Getting Through the Rest of the Show," a "play" in which one cast member, chosen by the audience, drinks a bunch of alcohol very quickly) to the short and amusing/interesting (autobiographical tidbits in various forms, attempts at audience participation) to the short and superb (a couple of pieces in which two of the actors performed in quick staccato unison); it's still well worth seeing if you get the chance.
The English Patient (screenplay)
Cleared up one or two extremely minor questions I still had about the movie; made clear that it wasn't just the writing that made the movie as good as it is (though that did have a lot to do with it). Less quotable, and less filled with ineffable Dramatic Moments, than I'd expected from seeing the movie, but a fine piece of writing nonetheless.


Jed Hartman <logos@kith.org>