Archives : December 2004

2004 December 6


I've just caught up on my notes on my last six months of reading, so I draw your attention to the left margin, or the actual booklist.

Urban hiking

As the bus rolled into the Bronx, we were greeted by a giant black billboard with plain white lettering: "george w. bush: worst president ever". I don't know if this was left over from the RNC, or if someone just really really needed to vent after the election, but I felt welcomed.

I spent the weekend mostly walking myself into a pair of spectacular blisters on the balls of my feet, despite wearing shoes I normally wear all the time. Next time I'm bringing the real hiking boots. New York may be among the best places for urban hiking in the world, but I'm going to have to do it right. If I'd had any sense I would have stopped and got moleskin when I realized I was chafing, but my brain decided that if it ignored my feet, they would go away. Nice one, brain.

I took the subway to Williamsburg to check up on the hipsters, who seem to be doing quite nicely for themselves. There are some splendid murals off and along Bedford Ave. And of course the first shop I went into, Brooklyn Industries, had the T-shirt I most wish I'd bought as a souvenir, but I'm psychologically unable to buy the first thing I look at. I did manage to get a nifty little tile clock in a hole-in-the-wall art/clothing store; am pleased with that. Next time I'm spending more time in Williamsburg (unless it takes me so long that the artists have moved on again).

Had to hike fairly quickly through the Hasidic end of Billyburg because the sun was on its way down and I wanted to make it to the Brooklyn Bridge before sunset. But Saturday afternoon had the Hasidim out in their finest. I'm puzzled by the hats. I'm not up on the details of their beliefs, but I can infer that men are commanded to wear only black, with white hose, and that they have to wear hats. This all seems quite plausible, just the sort of thing a fussy Deity might instruct. But why were so many of the hats these huge furry cylinders? They didn't seem to be mandatory -- there were some men in more conventional wide-brimmed hats -- but it seemed like three-quarters of the men had gone to the same hatter and asked for the biggest, showiest , most imposing (but yet still strictly compliant) model they had.

The Brooklyn Bridge at sunset is not to be missed. There's a raised pedestrian/cyclist boardwalk above the level of the traffic that actually makes a pleasant, though tourist-dense, walk.

After dinner in a fabulously stylish and expensive bar/restaurant in SoHo, I spent the evening wandering from shop to shop up lower Broadway. South of 14th St, it is aligned so that its canyon frames the Chrysler Building in the distance. Then it makes a slight bend to the west, and the view changes to the Empire State Building.

Sunday morning it was rain at times heavy. I had breakfast in Chelsea Market, which sounded cool in my guidebook -- a gourmet food and flower market in an old Nabisco factory that took up almost a whole block. Which it was, and it was very attractive, but it was too sparse and unpopulated to have any life to it on a Sunday morning.

I spent much of the rest of the day in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, sometimes stopping to look at rooms closely, sometimes just wandering at random and waiting for something to catch my eye. Actually, when I first got there I was feeling sufficiently wet and bedraggled that the first thing I did was find the quietest and most obscure corner of the building to just sit and read for a while. This turns out to be the Tibetan sculpture gallery. I think when I went up there I actually caught the guard napping, or at least with her eyes closed.

I love Vermeer.

Did a bit more shopping Sunday afternoon. Bought a belt in a punk shop on St Marks Place. Ate a hot dog from Nathan's Famous, which was disappointing. I'll have to try again with a different vendor, but currently I have Chicago kicking NY's ass in the hot dog department.

Got the eight-o'clock bus, arrived back at South Station a bit before midnight.

2004 December 30

Boule de neige et jour de l'an et bonne année grandmère

I like Christmas. People always grumble about it and I can sort of understand the impulse; it's so frigging omnipresent for what seems like a quarter of the year and no one likes feeling like they have no choice in the matter. But people say things like "Merry Largely Secular Commercial Holiday Forced Down The Throats of Non-Christians, everyone!" And that's not just killjoying, but deeply confused. (And my apologies to the person who said this particular line, who I'm about to dump on as if he was the only culprit. I'm not going to name him because I'm really not trying to start an argument; the line just perfectly encapsulated the anti-Christmas spirit I want to rant agin.)

Retailers indisputably make a godawful excessive deal out if it, but fuck them. They're parasites -- you can't let them spoil the fun. Ignoring media shit is a basic modern survival skill. But complaing that a holiday is both "largely secular" and "forced upon non-Christians" is just non-sensical. If you're not a Christian, what are you doing complaining there's not enough Jesus in your Christmas? Apart from not listening to your own snark, that is.

I'm an atheist, and as far as I'm concerned Christmas is a perfectly excellent secular holiday. Everyone gets time off work, you can gather the whole family in one place, and people put up thousands of lights at the darkest time of the year. Every year I fly home before Christmas, and every year the flight is overbooked. The airlines keep thinking someone is going to fail to show up so they can get away with selling the same seats twice, but Nova Scotians are going home for their holiday. This year Delta was offering $200 to anyone willing to postpone to take a flight the next day. They announced it every five minutes; no one wanted it. This was only the 21st. How can you not love a holiday like that?

Also, presents. I love everything about presents -- thinking them up, buying them, wrapping them, giving them, and opening my own. They're magical. I'm not so good at telling people they matter to me; it's good for me to have an opportunity and a prompting to do it.

Look, the midwinter festival really is not a Christian holiday. It's a down time of the year, and people have been filling it with party since the dawn of history: Yule, Saturnalia, the Feast of Mithras. I'm with Ken Layne: "The reason for the season is the season is the reason." You don't have to be Christian to get a little drunk and wish your neighbours peace on Earth and goodwill to men.

This year's favourite fun fact: jolly old St. Nicholas of Myra is patron saint of thieves, pawnbrokers, prostitutes, and New York City. This all makes Santacon seem much more devout.

Meanwhile, the new year is upon us, which means it's time to use a bit of that Christmas cheer and end-of-tax-year accounting to go make some charitable donations. Every respectable charity these days takes credit cards online -- it couldn't be easier, it feels good, and it makes you a better person.

I'm serious. I have miserly instincts; some training in generosity is good for my soul. Aiming to donate 5% of my after-tax income seems like a worthwhile goal to me; some years I've done it. Lately I've gotten erratic, so this afternoon I've "borrowed" some time from my employer to get it sorted out. (It's not like I was going to get much work done today anyway. :-)

Charities I like: Médecins Sans Frontières and the International Rescue Committee will do some good for the devastated towns of the Indian Ocean. Also, The Nature Conservancy. Human Rights Watch. TechnoServe. FINCA. Environmental Defense. The Trust for Public Land. Accion International. But if you don't share my international-development-heavy agenda, the American Institute for Philanthropy and Charity Navigator have lots of other recommendations for you.

Be a philanthropist. It's cool.

Happy New Year!