5.05.2014

WAVE HILL ALPINE WALL OF JEWELS



I had a hankering this weekend to visit Wave Hill, a beautiful garden in Riverdale, NYC,  in the Bronx. There were a couple of pines I wanted to check out, and I needed a hit of spring bulbs (beyond the beloved daffodils.) A friend had never seen the place, but always wanted to, and that sealed the deal. I packed a few slices of olive oil cake for fortification, as one always needs a snack after a stroll. (This is my favorite new recipe for tea parties, one that I have baked a few too many times this winter--and yes, one always needs stoutness exercises after a snack....)


I found the pine I've been fantasizing about planting, a Lace Bark. It has a beautiful architecture (this one has been well-pruned over the years) and a marvelous mottled pattern on its bark. And the spring ephemera did not disappoint; the beds are a riot of hellebore and tulips and hyacinth and everything else you would expect to see in spring.


But I was surprised by what I consider the shy star of the garden right now. At the back of a clever series of troughs we spotted a stone wall--at least six feet high--covered with miniature jewels: the Alpine Wall, running alongside the glass Alpine House. We got a lesson in planting walls with tiny delights.




In general the hothouses are looking good; there's an enormous therapeutic benefit to breathing the air in a glasshouse. Several beds of large sedum were handsome and elegantly plump. I'm looking forward to more variety on the wall, and in the house--they can only get better.

There is so much to see in this classic garden, high above the Hudson--an excellent perch from which to watch migrating birds, too. The views of the Palisades are worth the trip, but so are the specimen trees, and right now the magnolias are in heavy bloom. This was once a private garden, and its scale is welcoming; many visitors had settled into the surprisingly comfortable wooden armchairs (painted with Benjamin Moore's Mountain Sage--we asked), their newspapers pinned down against the winds, steaming mugs of coffee in hand, basking in spring sun. We got an extra treat when the legendary Marco Polo Stufano wheeled around the corner. He retired as the director of horticulture in 2001, but he is still invited by to "check up on things"--thankfully for all of us who love this garden; we are the beneficiaries of his keen and discerning eye.



5.03.2014

SPRING WOODS





Last year I took my spring walks in the dunes. This year, I find myself spending hours in Rhode Island woods, tromping across bogs, wading across streams, mesmerized by moss and rot.




Just a few pictures here from a recent walk--and perhaps a desire on my part to balance my last screed on air pollution. I want to share joy as well as frustration.

It's been a long, cold, wet spring, and I have loved every minute of it. I know that soon enough we will all be complaining about how hot it is.





NYC 311: HOW TO MAKE REPORTING ON AIR QUALITY AS DIFFICULT AS POSSIBLE


Outside my window, a few buildings regularly spew black soot into the air. All winter, all spring, all throughout the day, on and off, as the boilers for heat and hot water kick in, every day. This happens across the city. The pollution is hugely improved because of NYC's Clean Heat program.

But it sure isn't solved. And here's an additional problem: It is difficult to figure out how to report the issue, as a plain old citizen.

I'm still on hold at 311, after 15 minutes, so I'm writing while I'm waiting. I am trying to log a complaint about pollution from 835 Riverside Drive and its neighbors. Watching an especially alarming spew of soot this morning--one that went on for 20 minutes--I took a series of photographs, then laced on the sneakers, and tracked down the building. I got addresses, names of the owners, the management companies, and the superintendent for two of the buildings, but not 835. I met a resident from that address, told him what was going on, and he said, "Ha, they don't care." 

The super returns my phone call, and says he has no idea what I'm talking about. Never mind that there is a thick residue of soot around all the stacks. He's never seen smoke.

Next, onto 311--online. Expecting this to be a piece of cake--given de Blasio's recent announcement about air quality as a top priority--I go to the drop-down menu of complaints on the home page. Air Quality? Nothing. Air pollution? Nothing. Smokestack pollution? Nothing. Literally nothing on the 311 home page that makes it clear how to report air pollution. There's garbage, and apartments, transit, graffiti, even. But no air pollution.

Next I go Old School, and phone 311. Eventually, I am sent to the person who will report this issue to the Department of Environmental Protection. He takes down the complaint.

All of this phone calling takes 25 minutes. All told, it took 45 minutes to log a complaint. 

I happen to be obsessed with air pollution--it is my job to be, for starters. But what about all the people who hardly have the time or the patience for reporting?

I've learned a great deal about soot and our hearts, and our lungs. Soot contributes to heart disease and stroke. Asthma levels are epidemic in Northern Manhattan. Smaller lungs take a bigger hit.

I know buildings are supposed to be switching from burning filthy #6 heating oil to #4 or #2--and the city overall has enjoyed much cleaner air since this rule went into effect. Except in my neighborhood of Washington Heights. But honestly,  I see soot billowing from smokestacks all over the city. Soot pouring over hospital buildings, and wafting across office windows. When I lived in Harlem, I watched it pour out of buildings all around 125th Street.

It is much harder to get smaller buildings to comply with the new regulations, and landlords claim that they will have to pass the costs onto tenants who can ill afford higher rents. Surely there are ways around this with creative financing mechanisms, if necessary. And then there's the foot-dragging, if not plain old cynical defiance of these rules. After all, most building owners don't live under the pollution.

Here's a mantra: You cannot fix a problem if you cannot find the problem.

For those of us who are trying to be good citizens, trying to protect the quality of our air, NYC needs to update its 311 home page to include air pollution, and make reporting much easier. These are problems that usually cannot be seen from the street. They are seen from our bedroom windows, so to speak. And they leave their dirty residue on our windowsills, and, more alarmingly, in our hearts and lungs. 

We live in a net of interdependence. Let's make all parts strong, so we can all do our parts to clean up New York City air.  

4.11.2014

LIFE WITH MY CAMERA


Heads up! Essay in the New York Times Travel section on having a camera, which happened thanks to this blog--and your enthusiasm and encouragement. With thanks!

Pictures here display my moss/wood/rock obsession....and after the soggy spring we've had, there's plenty of enchantment around.


3.07.2014

THIS I WEAR BLOG


It is fun for me to meet people producing wonderful blogs. I had lunch with some of the Eileen Fisher crew recently; they are always interested in who is doing good work in the world, and Moms Clean Air Force is focusing lots of time not only on climate change, but on toxic chemical reform. (Sign our petition for reform now; a bill is working its way through Congress.) As we went around the table introducing ourselves, describing a bit of our journeys, Rebecca Magee talked about a blog she started years ago, called This I Wear.

Intrigued by how blogs give us all a chance to run down any rabbit hole that catches our attention--without having to ask a slowpoke editor for permission--I started exploring. (Really, this should be the golden age of magazines; instead, too many editors are stuck. I especially noticed this as I pored over shelter magazines and their websites during my renovation. But that's another story.)  This I Wear is charming, it has a sweet tone and carefully considered posts. (And, by the way, college grads, please note: it led Magee into her job at Eileen Fisher.)

This I Wear is about the soul of clothing, and the bond of attachment we form with so many of the things we buy--and what that says about us. Magee's got a post up now on a Japanese technique of embroidery, called Sashiko, begun as a way to reinforce weak spots in clothing (those pesky knees, toes and elbows). Kinship: it reminded me of my mending techniques.

One of the things I love about This I Wear is Magee's fascination with her mother's closet. She writes about Liberty scarves, for instance, and how excited she was to find one in NYC; it brought back loving memories of her mother's collection. The other theme in her writing has to do with cherishing old things, and how clothes just get better with time. Some of my friends were, um, gently scandalized that I wasn't buying a new dress for my son's wedding. But I had an outfit that I love--one I wore so often in magazine days that my publisher told me to change clothes, as there were too many photographs during the year of me wearing the same outfits.  My silver-embroidered coat and skirt were perfect for the grand occasion--one of the most important in my life--they were comfortable and glittering, a neat combination, and I wanted to imbue them with wedding bliss.

How easy it is these days to have a "Just Throw It Away" attitude about our stuff. When you can buy fabulous wool socks at Century 21 for a couple of dollars--why bother to darn them? But then....those socks might last a month before your toes start poking through, or the heel is threadbare. Far better to buy fewer things of higher quality, things that will last a lifetime. Or at least through a wedding or two. 

3.05.2014

WHAT'S IN A BABY NAME?

Creeping back to Slow Love Life...just beginning to dig out from under musty cardboard boxes that have spent years in storage. Much to report, eventually, on the pain and joy of settling into a new life. I finally admit that I do not have eight arms or two brains or V8 horsepower and can only do so much....

But meantime: this amazingly fun and highly distracting link to a history of baby names in the US over time, sent to me by my pal Shaun. Naturally, the first thing I did was plug mine into the Search tool. I was stunned to learn that there were 7 Dominiques in the US when I was named. No doubt they all had French mothers. I loathed my name when I was a child; it was too different and exceedingly difficult to spell. And worse, my mother had pinned a note to the smock I was forced to wear over my regular clothes (embroidered with my name in script of course) saying: "She has no nick name. Please use her full name."

To this day, my father has never once pronounced my name correctly, saying it in the masculine form. Dominick. Of course, when I was a kid, everyone said about my name, isn't that a boy's name? He wanted to name me Danielle, so he could call me Danny. My mother refused.  I used to think he could not pronounce Dominique correctly because he had wanted a boy child, then I thought, he simply cannot speak French, and then I decided, he will not speak French, he refuses: language is a way to mark a separation, a dividing line.

Any of you who have grown up in a two-language household will recognize some of the dysfunction that can set in. My mother always spoke French to me around other people who did not speak French--she still does--it was a way of throwing a magic circle of separation around us, a way of keeping us apart, and keeping me to her. When she took a nasty fall last year, out like a light, unconscious for quite a while, Theo and I got to the emergency room just as the ambulance was pulling up with her on the stretcher. I found myself babbling in French to her, calling her, trying to wake her up and focus her on where she was. French was what she heard. (She is better, now, sort of.) French was what I learned way before English; my toddler babble was an incomprehensible mix of the two, or so I am told by older Kentucky cousins who had a hard time figuring out what to make of it all.

I am still trying to figure out what to make of it all.

Perhaps because my parents are becoming so frail, and because I am once again setting up a new home, and because my son and his beloved wife are also setting up a new home, at the beginning of this miraculous journey called love....much about childhood, and about the twists and turns we take, is on my mind. My friend Cynthia says now that life is a river, and we are simply floating down on the water, we don't know what is ahead or around the bend. I always wanted to steer, to know where we were going, to decide where to land. But when I look at the landscape around me now, I realize I had no idea, and no control. In fact. I could never have predicted where I am living now, or what I spend my days doing as work--and yet, from the moment I first stepped out of the subway into this neighborhood, I recognized home, and from the moment I began to give voice to concerns about our climate, I recognized a calling.

 What's in a name? Everything--the seed, the germ, of a new life, given to us by those who bring us into this world, with all their hopes and expectations. And really, not much at all; a name is ours to fill as we choose, if we can ever get an oar into those currents deep enough to get somewhere....

Have fun with this, waste some time pondering your company over the years, and see what kinds of meditations arise on being....your name here

1.09.2014

BLUE NORTHERS, WARM HEARTS

Amazing how quickly, and how fiercely, we latch on to words to give meaning to what befalls us. Polar vortex. A rough, shaggy beast left the North Pole and descended so rapidly upon us, bringing with it a cold so severe after a day of mild winter weather, that we were stunned into paralysis. The polar vortex: the person at a party who violates boundaries; the woman texting while driving on the highway, veering across three lanes of traffic.

My bedroom windows began weeping with condensation; after sopping up water with a couple of towels even I, in a swoon of homemaking, realized this was not normal window behavior. "Polar vortex," said the super. (A helpful man who lives here! If only he were helpful!) Classic New York: Fuggedabout it.

I much preferred the term, Blue Norther. Partly, that's political: we are going to have to get used to a climate in which there are no boundaries to be violated--because our weather is getting more extreme, more unreliable, across the planet. And we are going to have to stop behaving like the careless text-er, thinking only of ourselves. We're in this together; the way we act individually has enormous consequence collectively.

But really, there's poetry in a Blue Norther. I'm the first person to go directly to an emotional analogue, so I began to meditate on how a Blue Norther slams the heart unexpectedly--a severe shock, an unexpected betrayal that slams you up against the wall, you retreat, huddling into whatever warmth you can find until it passes, and then you heal. We all know Blue Northers.

Meantime I am as far from being in the grips of a Blue Norther as I can get. My heart is spilling over, literally skipping beats, so that I have to sit down and collect myself, hold my hand over my heart to keep it from leaping out of my chest, and let the joy quietly swaddle me. I'm almost afraid to feel such profound joy--if you have a superstitious bone in your body, or an entire skeleton held together with ligaments of superstition, you're bound to think, oh dear, now something terrible will happen. Get away, polar vortex, swooping in from a place of fear, freezing the heart.

My son gets married soon: we are in countdown, and family is arriving from distant parts. He is entering a stage of life I didn't think I would live to see. I can shed the anxiety I had--so deeply buried I had forgotten it was there, but it was, all along--that our divorce might have irreparably damaged, if not broken, his ability to make a life-long commitment to love. Then, how odd it is to still feel fifteen years old, in my soul, and to see my son behaving in an altogether much more grown-up manner. And to see one's child blissful? His joy is a solar vortex, warm, cheery, open and sweet, lassoed across my path.

I am finally in my apartment, unpacking boxes, thinking, feet first. Next time I leave this place it'll be feet first. I'm also thinking, how on earth did I accumulate all this stuff? And I'm thinking, furthermore, I need never buy another: tea towel, candle, wineglass, piece of china, chair, photograph, or book. But none of that was ever about need, was it? Desire sometimes feels like need.

And I'm getting to know an entirely new part of this gorgeous city. Jane asked, in the last comment section, where can I get a tea cake? I wondered if she wanted something sweet? Many of you know that I am directly descended from Winnie-the-Pooh, up to and including a penchant for half-hearted stoutness exercises, so I wander the streets trying to pick up the scent of honey. That, and a Spinning Chicken (okay, rotisserie) are all I need to make a feast. I must locate the tea cakes that are to my liking--not too sweet, but sweet enough. For the tea cake you drink, pu'erh, go to In Pursuit of Tea, where you will find such beauties as Moon Cake and Blessed Forever Banzhai Bingcha.

No doubt a polar vortex will lurch into our lives once again. No doubt a Blue Norther will sweep through the sky, shoving us up against the wall. For now, though, I report from a milder climate. And how delicious it is to feel Blessed Forever.