New York City, part 1


'Cause everyone's my friend in New York City
And everything looks beautiful when you're young and pretty
The streets are paved with diamonds and there's just so much to see...

I made a vow when I was young: I would not go to New York City until I had seen at least one of the great capitals of Europe. London, Berlin, Paris, Rome - I wasn't picky. It's just that going up in America I was inundated since the day I was born with television and movies telling me if you're not in New York, you're nothing. (And southern California is almost as bad, but I always just saw that as laughable.) To me, the Greatest City on Earth should at least have been around for a thousand years or so.
When I grew up and went to college this became even more pronounced. I met people from all over the world, and had wonderful conversations with them about how where they were from compared to what they saw in Columbus. But ask someone from NYC where they were from, and there was this pause after they answered. It was a few years, and many occurrences of this later, that it was pointed out to me that they were waiting for the asker to in some way express envy. They were taken aback if none was forthcoming. In what was obviously a case of my own reverse-snobbism I felt bad for them for being unable to appreciate all the wonderful things the rest of the world had to offer. Like trees, and fresh air. Or the relative lack of armed robberies.
Over the years I've been through New York state several times, and all around the area. Of course a few years ago I moved just hours south. Manhattan was now a day trip. One I had no intention of making anytime soon.
A few months ago I heard from my friend Cindy in Switzerland, wondering if I was going to be visiting my parents in April. She's an interpreter, and was going to be assigned to the UN Headquarters in New York for a week. We had met the last time she was in the US at the wedding of a mutual friend in Michigan. Our friend was now expecting her first child, and Cindy's trip would be close to the expected delivery date. So she planned to spend a few days at the end of her trip visiting Michigan, and also really wanted to see me, if it was possible. A trip back to the Midwest was easy enough, but I also figured her grasp of American geography was a little weak and pointed out that I was a few hours from New York if she couldn't make it to Michigan.
So, lots of schedule changes and altered plans later, and I'm breaking my vow and driving across the Lincoln Tunnel.
The last message I had from Cindy before I left Baltimore that afternoon predicted a quiet day as her conference wound down, then an evening with her mom visiting the Metropolitan Museum of Art. My hotel was across the street from the United Nations, so I planned on walking around and taking some photographs if the weather was nice, or just getting some rest in my room.
It was sunny when I arrived, but with signs of rain gathering on the horizon. I reached Manhattan at 5 o' clock and expected a traffic nightmare, but it wasn't bad at all. And my first, surprising, impression was a strange feeling of openness. The streets of large cities always seem to me to be eternally in shadow. But there, even with buildings taller than anything I had ever seen before, there was still sunlight. It may be due to wider sidewalks, or just the result of a very good layout.
My room was another pleasant surprise. I was paying less than I had in most places I've traveled to, so I was expecting something the size of a closet. Instead I got one of the largest hotel rooms I can recall staying in, with a spacious bathroom and my own kitchen! It also had a gorgeous view overlooking the East River.
While I unpacked the evening news was covering the opening game that night at the new stadium for the Yankees, and the Mets' signing of former Tiger Gary Sheffield. Rain looked increasingly likely, so after a quick shower I decided to change and go to the exercise room, then maybe watch a movie when I got back to my room.
I picked up my cellphone to call and leave a message for Cindy letting her know that I made it, and to call me when her and her mom got back if it wasn't too late when my room phone rang. It was a very stressed out sounding Cindy. It turns out her mom had decided she was too tired to go to the museum and was just going to stay in for the night. And her quiet conference ending had turned into bedlam when the Western European countries nominated Israel as the next conference chair, and all the Arab nations, of course, had to rise up in protest. And I was in trackpants and a t-shirt praying that she wasn't calling from my lobby!
Luckily she wasn't, and we decided to meet in front of my hotel after I had changed. That took me less time than I thought, so I spent awhile talking to teenagers and their parents in the lobby from the Dominican Republic who were visiting to attend a Model UN program.
Cindy was shocked that I had never been to New York before, and seemed very amused when I explained my slightly-childish reason. Still, being there for a week made her the expert in my eyes, so she played tour guide and showed me around Midtown. It rained off and on, and of course I left my umbrella in my car, but it was never heavy. It was only a little cooler than in Baltimore, and probably because of the rain there weren't any large crowds out.
She took me to Grand Central Station, and I pointed out the inverted constellations on the ceiling. Elsewhere we just wandered the streets, and I was able to point out things learned from a lifetime of American movies and TV. The Public Library, where all I could think of was Bill Murray in Ghost Busters. Looking up in the middle of a conversation to see the "Late Show with David Letterman" marquee above my head, and remembering nights in front of the television laughing with friends. An obligatory stop so we could both load up on tacky souvenirs, then Broadway and Times Square.
We finally came to a rest in a diner on Broadway. Cindy saw cheesecake in a window display as we entered, and we made a note to order some for dessert. I had a mental list of things I had to try while in New York, based on recommendations from friends who grew up there. Cheesecake, surprisingly, wasn't on the list, but hot dogs and pizza both were. So I got a hot dog. Cindy ordered matzah ball soup (which she dubbed "mazal tov soup", having no idea of what matzah was, but remembering that the waiter and I said it was Jewish) and a salad. My hot dog was huge, and I thought, at first, it was covered in onions. Oh no- sauerkraut. I used to flee the house when my dad would cook the stuff, but I had to ask for an authentic New York City hot dog. So I sucked it up and poured on some spicy mustard. It wasn't bad, as long as I didn't actually smell it. Eventually that did me in.
Cindy got her cheesecake. Now, anywhere else in the world where I've had cheesecake it's been a pretty standard size. Essentially a small slice of pie. Now picture a typical triple-layer cake. Cut that into quarters. One of those would be the size of the piece of cheesecake they brought her, covered in strawberries. I tried to help her eat it, but even the two of us could only manage a little over half. It was delicious, but just way too large. She took the rest back (still larger than a regular slice) for her mom.
Eventually we realized we had sat talking in that diner for hours, and it was now well after midnight. When I got back to my room I got my tripod out of my suitcase, opened the window and took some fantastic pictures of the bridges over the river at night, and shimmering buildings reflected off of the hotel's tower next to mine.
I spent awhile reading through my email, then I decided to be proactive, and download all of the photographs from the day to my laptop so I'd have plenty of room on my memory card the next day. The program to read the memory card crashed, which had never happened before, and without thinking I unplugged the camera to see if reconnecting it would help. Immediately my camera's display flashed an error that the memory card wasn't initialized. When I unplugged the camera it was still mounted, and it had gotten erased. All of my pictures from that first evening were gone.
I got my tripod back out, attached my camera, and just as turned the lights out and turned my camera back on the young lady in the room across from me, also with her curtains open, decided to take her top off. At least she was facing away from me, and walked into her bathroom. Then, just as I overcame the initial shock, she walked back out talking on her phone, now completely nude.
Welcome to New York.
Unexpected Show

The Dawn of a New Day

I wanted to summarize all the conversations I had with people today about this monumental day in our nation's history, as well as my own thoughts, observations, and hopes for the coming years. Instead I'll simply pass on a text message I got from the national mall moments after President Obama took the oath of office:

"Lady Liberty just got a full Brazillian!"

Hi-ho! Kermit the frog here!

You know it's raining too hard when you open your door and a frog immediately plops into your living room... When I tried to get a picture it spooked him and he went hopping between my legs. I couldn't see where he went, but since the door was still open I hope he hopped outside. I looked under all the furniture, but didn't see him. Hopefully I don't have a dead frog rotting in one of the closets.

Good Grief!

A just plain inspired cartoon from Evan Shaner

The Real Rumble in the Jungle

This may be the most amazing thing I've ever seen on film! Hungry lionesses, a herd of buffalo, and a crafty crocodile battle for the life of a young calf.

Sweeping Up

The major site upgrades are all complete. Some minor changes are still being worked on. The photogallery is up and running as part of the main site again.

Pardon All the Dust

The site is currently undergoing upgrades. At the moment the "Gallery" link is not enabled. Until it is the direct link to my photographs is here.

Half Empty Comic Strips

Somedays my life feels like this.

Thoughts to the Rhythm of a Vacuum Pump

Quickly adapted from an email to Cindy Barbara (mostly just deleting the parts that aren't applicable if you're not cute and French.)

I thought this weekend I was going to spend cleaning my house, but I woke up way too early this morning and went downstairs to lay on the couch for awhile. I left my cellphone sitting on my coffee table last night, so I was right next to it when I got a call asking if I could cover for a sick colleague down at Goddard Space Flight Center (just outside of Washington D.C.)
So, here I am, once again, mostly bored sitting next to a gigantic cryo-vacuum chamber (with very loud pumps.)
I must have mentioned it when we were in Michigan, because we still had not finished the second round of testing until my birthday in October. This is the third (and final!) set of tests for the brand new camera going into the Hubble. It's very exciting to be a part of, but it's also very, very boring. I guess that's a good thing- the only time there's really much to do is when things go wrong. So boring is good.
One benefit is that I get to attend the launch of the space shuttle so the astronauts can install it this summer. One of my earliest memories is of my older brother waking me up on a Saturday morning when I was maybe 4 years old saying "The space shuttle is launching!" Now, this was just a year or two after Star Wars had come out, and I recall not knowing what a "space shuttle" was, and not quite grasping that spaceships didn't go into outer space all the time. But seeing that I was hooked. I saw lots of news coverage about it at my friend's house across the street the rest of the day (I think that first mission just went up, orbited a few times, then landed) and grew to understand that it was the first time anything like that had been done.
Needless to say I always wanted to see a launch in person, but never got the chance. When I moved back to Toledo and started graduate school my best friend and I vowed we were going to go to the next one we could. Unfortunately that was a week or so before the terrorist attacks in 2001, and after that I don't think they let anybody anywhere near the space center during a launch. Then Columbia, that first shuttle I had watched on T.V. as a little boy, burnt up on re-entry, and it looked like there would be no more launches to ever see. Eventually they resumed, but under much tighter security. The public can no longer watch from the space center itself, only from beaches and parks many miles away.
But, I am no longer "the public". NASA employees can request passes to be present for a launch (and I'm a psuedo-NASA employee). Plus, being even a minor member of the team building and operating the new camera gives me a sort of V.I.P. (Very Introspective Person? That doesn't sound right...) status.
So unless they run out of the allotment of passes before they work they're way down to my level on the totem pole, I'll finally get my chance to see one. And I get to bring friends to Florida with me. Unfortunately they have families and jobs now, and can't just up and go whenever like me the crazy stargazing bachelor, but hopefully at least a few people will get to go with me.
And most of you probably already know that I finally made it back to Hawai'i.
The first night we were there we were just too jet-lagged to do anything, and just went to bed. The next morning we had contract negotiations with the university about our continuing to use the observatory. We were really worried about it, but it went very smoothly. They seem to really like us being there and want us to stay.
When we were finally ready to head up to the summit we were told that the road had been closed all morning due to some ice, but that it had just opened. We made it up and quickly got to work.
At some point long after the sun had set I stepped outside for a moment and the ground felt "weird" under my boots. I went back inside and came out with a flashlight. It was covered in snow! Even there, at the highest point on the entire island, it had only snowed a few times in anyone still living's lifetime.
We were mildly concerned at the start of our drive back down the mountain, but it looked like it had stopped snowing and only the wind was blowing some flakes around in open areas. We stopped at a turn off point part way down and Peter took a picture of me with the snow blowing all around in our car's headlights just to proof to everyone we know that it did actually snow.
When we made it back to our rental house there wasn't a cloud in the sky, and it was a warm, dazzling night. I'm always shocked by how clear the sky is there. The stars look like jewels suspended in dark blue ink. I hate to say it, but it even puts our walk out onto the lake in Michigan to shame.
The next morning it was raining. We were impressed to see that it had snowed enough to put a white cap on the volcano. We went to the grocery store to pick up food for the observatory, and all the locals were amazed at the sight of snow on the mountain. People couldn't believe it when we told them we had been up there while it happened.
We hadn't given it any thought, but of course we quickly learned that the National Park rangers had closed the entire mountain area due to the snow. It was a bit of culture shock. We tried working from our house, but realized quickly that we didn't have enough of the observatories computer systems configured just right yet, and therefore couldn't do too much work from the ground. So, we decided to forgo our beautiful house overlooking the ocean and try to get back to snow covered summit. The snow would surely melt by the end of the day and everything would be fine.
At every roadblock the rangers gave us horror stories about four wheel drive vehicles turning around in frustration, but let us continue, anyways. Even though the road was steep, winding, and nothing but sheer drop offs to the side it wasn't a bad drive up in our little rental car.
Too make a long story short, it snowed off and on for several days. We had warm clothes, sleeping bags, and plenty of food, so we were OK. Everybody at all of the other observatories live there, so they didn't bother trying to work during the snow. We had a week, so needed to do whatever we could. As a consequence for a few days we were the only two people on the entire mountain. If our electricity had gone out, which it does all too often up there, we would have been in serious trouble. But it didn't, and in the periods when it wasn't snowing I went for short walks. It was eerily beautiful. When the sun came out all the ice around me glimmered like the rocks were covered in diamonds.
Eventually it warmed up above freezing, then we were buried under fog from all the snow melting. We extended our trip a few extra days, but it never did clear. And all the snow melting, plus the rain, caused flooding further down, which closed the road up and down for even more days.
Finally we just accepted that we weren't going to get clear skies, and booked a hotel in this old whaling village on the coast just to relax and enjoy ourselves. Now instead of ships hunting whales scientist study them from there.
The shallow waters between the islands, so far out in the otherwise impossibly deep Pacific make the area the favorite mating and birthing grounds for humpback whales. We went out on a boat with a bunch of marine biologist and other tourists and it was almost like trying to float in a bowl of "whale soup". There were so many of them that they seemed to be everywhere you looked. Highlights of the trip were when we put a microphone down in the water and listened to the whales sing to each other, and then on our way back into port saw a mother and her calf, who the scientists determined was only a day or two old. While we were just patiently watching the baby decided he wanted to try what he must of seen some of the adults do, and LEAPED into the air! Most of the scientist were women in their 20s, and they all squealed like little girls in happiness. Unfortunately I didn't get a picture of it, but it was so cool to see one so small (I mean for a whale!) do something they thought only older whales did.
Now, from one ocean to the other! (Typical American- I only ever think of two of them...)
It occurred to me last week that I had lived here for over a year, but still hadn't been to the coast. I'd spent so much time in the Pacific the past few years, but was ignoring the Atlantic just a few miles away. So I decided to spend the day in the resort town of Ocean City.
I know people who's greatest joy is spending every summer of their lives in such places. I'm definitely not one of them. It's a terrible thing to think, but I always picture them as very old women trying to hide their wrinkles and age spots with garish makeup.
Architecture of such towns I always think of a Mid-20th Century American Vomit. I'm not sure why. It's not the artificiality (fake castles, fake trees, etc). There's just always a feeling of rot and decay being barely hidden behind a cheap facade.
The first time I ever encountered a resort town was Niagra, Canada when I was around 8 or 9. It was a busy place with lots of people, but all of these places with big amusement park rides that I would have wanted to go on were closed. And looked like they hadn't been open in years. Museums filled with wonders and oddities were just falling down buildings with "shrunken heads" and "mummified mermaids" that were clearly fake even in the dim lighting to a little kid.
I always wonder if there was a Golden Age at some point of Ferris Wheels and Mini Golf. My entire life I've only encountered them in advanced states of decay and surrounded by a sense of melancholy. I've begun to suspect that they, in fact, spring into being sad and decaying. I never saw anything like these in Japan, until just a few years ago. Suddenly they were popping up in pictures from all over the country- supposedly wildly popular in the late 80s, but all abandoned to rust when the economy tanked in the mid-90s. But I've never located evidence of them in their popularity. Throngs of happy people at Tokyo Disney, yes. But no trace of these seaside parks until they were ghost towns along the coasts.
I know this is all turning very negative, and some of it is because I'm getting very tired, but it also has a point. I was walking along admiring the seagulls, and the waves crashing into the shore, and trying not to get depressed about constantly being stopped by smiling couples stopping me and asking me to take their pictures. I thought about how beautiful it was, as long as I kept my eyes to the sea, and not to the wall of hotels and decrepit stores selling cheap trinkets. I wished I could have seen what it looked like centuries ago, before we built all the junk all over the place.
Then I realized that not only was that a very elitist sort of thought, but it was very wrong. 200 years ago no one would have went to that beach to walk just for the fun of it. It would have been a shallow sandbar along a very treacherous coastline. Instead of smiling couples (and me) walking along admiring the gulls, the only person foolish enough to venture that close to the ocean might have been a young women whose husband was weeks overdue from his last voyage, dreading that every piece of driftwood that she found would be identifiable as a wrecked ship's timber.
The hotels and overpriced condos grown thick as weeds are what made beaches like that safe for people to visit and have a good time, and even children to play in the ocean. And maybe even the garish fantasy architecture and faux tropical trappings, the wild drunkenness and having sex with strangers in a seedy dance club that go hand-in-hand with such places is all just a way to laugh in the face of death.
I pondered that for a long while, and walked several miles along the shore, unable to get Bruce Springsteen's "4th of July, Asbury Park" out of my head.
But I did get my wish to see what that all may have looked like in the past.
Unbeknownst to me until I got there and saw a tourist map, Assateague island was just a few miles south. Right on the border with Virginia, it and several other islands have been made into State and National Parks. Almost completely undeveloped, their most famous residents are a population of horses that have been wild for generations.
It was fantastic. Miles of uninterrupted coastline, and the horses know they rule the island. They'll stand right in the middle of the few roads leading to the camping areas and just stare at you until they damn well feel like moving out of the way. Or just casually walk over and check out your car, probably hoping you'll give them something to eat.
The deer and the birds are nearly as fearless.
After that wonderful detour I headed back to Ocean City to catch the sunset and had a very good dinner at a restaurant in one of the hotels. Then I made the long drive in the dark back to Baltimore.

Funny Money

I'm going to blame it on my bizarre sleep schedule lately, but I was watching the online introductory video about my retirement plan when the narrator said, "We have ways of making sure you don't outlive your income." All I could picture was that guy from No Country for Old Men showing up at investors' doors when they turn 75 and jabbing them in the neck with that electro-thingie (What is that? I haven't actually seen the movie, or read the book).
And I also can never read any investing material without constantly quoting lines from Dave Chappelle's Wu Tang Financial skit.
Yes, I need to grow up.

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