Monday, April 27, 2009

Cold Spring

We had a monumental weekend. We spent Saturday in Cold Spring, New York, just an hour or so up the Metro North, riding rails that hugged the Hudson shoreline as the mountains emerged around us. The town itself was pretty and quaint. We walked from the train station a few blocks along Main Street, past an outfitters', a few cafes, an ice cream place, a couple of restaurants, and a B&B or two. People come to Cold Spring to hike Hudson Highlands State Park or kayak along the river; people also seem to bring their kids here. I particularly noticed how many families were toting babies of a different ethnicity, like we had stumbled into "Take Your Internationally-Adopted Kid to Cold Spring" Weekend without realizing it.

After getting situated at our place, the Pig Hill Inn, with its creaky, wide floorboards and charming European hostess, we set out for a sturdy two-hour hike in the Park. We had to walk along Fair Street to reach the trailhead, past a stately Catholic Church with American and Vatican flags fluttering and a Little League game enjoyed by a handful of relaxed parents sitting in folding chairs in the shade. We did a nice two-hour loop along several well-marked trails: Washburn (white blaze) to Undercliff (yellow) to Brook (red) to Cornish (blue), beginning with a steep ascent past an old quarry and gradually circling back down, almost to river level, past the ruins of the Cornish estate gaping at us through the trees and grass.
The views, once we reached them, were incredible. This is a different New York, this is Washington Irving country; a country where apples are grown and headless horsemen ride and where something strangely exotic yet elemental, something Dutch, still thrives. From the rocky heights we could take in an expansive view of the broadly sweeping river and the town laid out below. We could see the baseball field far down. The curves of the river looked swollen and rich, a fertile crescent. We could see the buildings of West Point and the foamy trails of boats as they chugged upriver. We were in New York, and we were in something greater.

That night we had dinner at a B&B by the river, sitting on the porch eating filet mignon as bored local kids rode bikes by the water. Back in the room, L fell asleep at 9:30 in her cute dinner dress and I sat in the chair, reading Tobias Wolff stories and the current Atlantic. In the morning, after breakfast, we got back on the train and chugged back home to the city, leaving behind the mountains and the clear watery air to dive back underground, where what you see beyond the windows of your train is not a mountainside dressed in old lively trees, but an inky blackness that reminds you of nothing so much as an absence of anything. Yet somehow it felt like enough.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Bizarro L

Tonight around 6:30 I changed into my running clothes in my office, and then set out for the park, nine blocks north, for a nice 6 mile run to kick off the weekend. As I was leaving I noticed a girl walking up from Rock Center towards the Park too, dressed in workout clothes. Huh, I thought. We sort of walked near each other through the wandering hordes on 6th Avenue, past the restaurants and bars with tables spilling out onto the sidewalk, past the commuters and past the glassed-in cigar store with large men smoking imperiously. At the park I took a minute to stretch while this girl took off running.

It was a perfect day to be there. The trees are just starting to lose their flowers for fresh new bursts of leaves. The sun was setting slowly, casting a warm light on the stocky skyline of the east side and sending long shafts of light along the grass and the road. Everyone was running or walking, riding in carriages or lounging under a tree. About a mile in I realized I was approaching the girl from before, and I passed her and kept moving. I continued along the great hill at the north end of the park, dipping briefly below the sunlight to climb back up the rocky hillside. Later, as I was nearing the last half mile, I saw this same girl trucking along -- she must have done a shorter route and gotten ahead of me, while I took the long route along the great hill -- and sure enough I passed her for the second time, just a few yards from the 6-mile mark where I was finishing.

I took a few minutes to stretch my legs again, my shirt cold against my back as the temperature began dipping. The girl passed me again, leaving the park, as I stretched. A few minutes later, walking back down 6th to the office to gather my things, I realized this same girl was walking a mere few feet away. Kind of strange. After a few minutes she took her earphones out and said to me, "Apparently we have the same pace, we should be running buddies."

Now, this is the point in the story where L's expression turned from benign amusement to skepticism. And I can see how this could have ended dramatically badly. But rest assured it did not. I ended up chatting with this girl as we walked back to Rock Center -- she works there too, and she ran the marathon the same year I did. And here's the kicker: she looked a lot like L, but frankly, a lot less attractive. She was short, and had dark hair, and sort of the same features, except things were slightly off and the overall effect not as appealing. She looked like a police sketch version of my wife. It was funny, though, because she had been training to run the same half marathon as L, and there seemed to be a few other weird similarities. Who was this girl?

So, on my run tonight I got to casually interact with a strange, less-attractive version of my wife. It was kind of fun and kind of weird, like trying Vietnamese food for the first time. After reassuring L that there was nothing sketchy or weird about it (besides the fact that it happened in the first place) she was fine with it too, and ended up making fun of me, which is how our conversations usually wind up.

With that auspicious beginning, tomorrow we're heading up to Cold Spring for a night away from the city. And then Sunday: L's birthday.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Day at Citifield

Yesterday Ashesh, Mona, L and I braved the 7 train to check out the Mets/Brewers game at the brand-new Citifield. Everything -- the ballpark, the weather, the seats, the outcome, the Blue Smoke ribs, the time we appeared on the Jumbotron, the margaritas we enjoyed back in the neighborhood afterwards -- was spectacular. It was a great day to be a New Yorker.

Although Citifield is definitely cut from the same Venerable-Old-Timey-Ivy-and-Brickwork aesthetic now dominating most new baseball stadiums, I thought they actually showed some restraint in not laying it on too thick. For all of the masonry and elegantly arches welcoming you to the Jackie Robinson Rotunda, there's plenty of exposed piping and darkly painted I-beams running along everything. The Rotunda itself was beautiful, an exceptional welcome to the new ballpark, with some genuinely inspirational inscriptions along the walls and floor. Near the center of the floor are a giant pair of bright-blue numbers, 42, behind markings representing Robinson's footprints. This area was mobbed with people taking photos as the game ended, and it made me really happy to see it. The whole thing was reverent and historical but still accessible and human-scale, like the game itself. How stuffy can you be when you are mere feet away from a men's room with dozens of urinals lined in a row?

Food-wise, they had plenty of your typical baseball fare, and tucked behind center field, rght alongside the whiffle ball diamond, is the ridiculous foodie oasis that seemed to really capture the modern Manhattanite's obsession with normal dishes somehow made exotic or locally grown or inexplicably expensive. Blue Smoke! Shake Shack! Fancy beers! Fancy tacos! It was unbelievable. The ribs were ridiculous, although I found them really hard to eat and could have used more wet naps.

Anyways, the day was perfect -- bright blue skies, a breeze keeping the flags lining the top of the stands in full view. Our seats were right along the first base line, giving us a great view of most of the action. The game was quick, with awesome pitching by Johan Santana that made up for the general lack of batting action. I tried to take a few photos with the old iphone, but between the bright sun and the barbecue sauce smeared all over my fingers (and face, let's keep it real) it was sort of challenging.

Here's a view of the infield from our seats. These seats were so good, the first thing I thought about as we settled in was that we could be killed by a foul ball in the blink of an eye. It was exciting!
Here's everyone going crazy as Mr. Met started shooting t-shirts into the crowd:
What a great day. I can't wait to go back. It made me want to buy a whole bunch of Mets stuff, too, like a cap, although wearing a baseball hat here is like making a strong political statement that half of everyone else will find extremely obnoxious. Like if you walked around with an "I'm GLAD we're in Iraq!" hat. Not that being a Mets fan is equivalent, but I would feel pressure to be knowledgeable and ready to defend the team, especially since a lot of these smarmy corporate types I tend to spend time with these days are usually Yankees fans. I just don't know if I'm ready for that commitment. But days like this definitely push me in that direction.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

"The-Dream is everywhere"

The best part of the current New Yorker, besides the beautiful cover and the articles I wish I could write, is the fact that the main essay in the back section is on my favorite, The-Dream. He has a new album out this spring, nipping on the heels of "Love/Hate," which you may recall dominated my sonic life for most of 2008. Sasha Frere-Jones is my favorite music writer -- he can capture its beauty and complexity in a way that always leaves me fumbling. His genius, though, is in the fact that he shares some of my tastes, which is how I can vouch for his brilliance.

Anyways, the new Dream album, "Love vs. Money," is great. He and his collaborator, Tricky Stewart, have not strayed far from the successful formula of their last venture, and they are still playing in the same universe of "ella"s and "eh"s and "Aye!"s. This time around, though, Dream is more ambitious about his skills and his place in the current R&B firmament. His singing has improved, with more traditional vocal flecks and R&B stylings. He offers a tribute to R. Kelly, then slyly supplants him in the final line of the song. Besides the swagger and good humor that characterized the last album, he attempts to lay the groundwork for the larger theme of the title, love vs. money. His songs about money -- "if she wanna make love on the edge of the world, I'll buy it" -- are knowing and briefly convincing. The last 90 seconds of "Fancy," for example, capture the intoxication and confidence and romance of wealth in a way that is genuinely exciting. It makes you want to live in that song.

Since the last album grew on me over such a long period of time, I'm trying to keep my expectations low for this venture and just enjoy it as it comes. Several tracks hooked me immediately: "Take U Home 2 My Mama," "My Love" with Mariah, "Walkin on the Moon" with Kanye, the "Rockin That Thing" remix. I love this guy.

As usual, Sasha Frere-Jones got it exactly right in the magazine:
Hip-hop allowed R&B singers to become aggressive again, to make the language blunt, and to admit a little bit of selfishness into the nice-guy routine. Having run that particular program, R&B is now following [The-Dream and Tricky Stewart] to a more subtle and complex area, where aggression and tenderness are equally represented.

Tuesday, April 07, 2009

Slow pitch

One of the best things about adulthood, bar none, is the fact that no one makes you participate in organized youth sports. I spent a lot of time in my formative years playing youth sports: cheering on my teammates as they charged ahead of me in the batting lineup, bantering with the assistant coaches as I sat out the inning in the dugout, winning the end-of-season awards for Most Sportsmanlike, or, even more humiliatingly, Most Improved. As a kid I would literally spend the entire schoolday dreading Little League practice, wondering what new failure or humiliation might be waiting for me there.

Through the years I sort of improved: my hand-eye coordination got better, and I learned the value of hustling. Even if you are truly bad at something, if you really hustle, you can generally get by all right. (This is true of everything.) In basketball I was able to snatch rebounds and really thrash the ball around to shake off other players, and I was tenacious at defense, keeping my eye on my opponent's midsection so he couldn't fake me out. In baseball, after I would completely miscalculate a line drive or a fly, I would run extremely quickly to wherever it landed on the ground and hurl it back towards the infield. There was a real upward trend.

Now, of course, I'm a grown-ass man, with a wife, an advanced degree, a professional career, my own apartment, copious student loan debt, and the freedom to fill my leisure time as I see fit. Rarely in the last decade has this included organized sports, save from individual efforts like running, which doesn't involve catching things. Yet tomorrow, dear reader, I will be playing on the firm's softball team, as we face some other corporate team at a ballfield on Roosevelt Island. That's right -- it's time to play Little League for adults, except now, rather than play with random kids from other elementary schools, I get to play with my coworkers! Awesome!

Obviously I am not going into this unprepared. Last Monday, when I found out that I would have to be playing softball in a little over a week, I promptly went to Sports Authority and spent about $60 on miscellaneous equipment. I also spent another obscene amount of cash to rent a batting cage at Chelsea Piers on Saturday. Anna, John, Mona and Ashesh, who were very good sports about everything, accompanied me. It was actually a lot of fun, even though we were surrounded by children's birthday parties. As I stood in the cage, my body ratcheted into the familiar position -- knees bent, shoulders cocked back, forearms tense, breathing steadily, whimpering slightly -- I felt the same good old sense of panic. Blood pounding in my temples, queasiness in my gut, the whole deal.

By the end of the hour (at which point we had all thoroughly lost interest in batting) I was feeling a lot better. After a couple of tragicomic whiffs at the beginning, I was making contact with every single slow, loping pitch, knocking the softballs into some solid line drives and a few angry grounders. I realized that I made better contact if I stepped a little farther back from the plate. I felt confident, even though most of my hits felt ugly against the bat, giving me that ringing feeling in my hands, like I was batting with a piece of rebar.

So that's where things are. Tomorrow night is softball night, unless it rains or something, which would obviously be horrible. In the evenings I have been oiling up the new baseball glove I bought, which feels cheap and plasticky on my hand, and there was a moment the other night when I smelled the leather, and I threw the ball into the pocket and held it there, and I realized I was actually kind of excited to get out there and see what happens. Not that this is redemption, or that I even need redemption, but maybe I will surprise myself. It could be something good, you never know. Batter up...