Friday, January 22, 2021

Knots of a Single


Friday morning ritual to meet up my dad up in the Gunks.  I’d ordered a used book on my dad’s recommendation which I decided to finish off this morning in anticipation of our walk up there: “The Northern Shawangunks, An Ecological Survey” by Erik Kiviat. It’s only a hundred pages long with a lot of pictures and tables.  Written in the eighties, it had a homemade quality that was at one and the same time cumbersome to read and endearingly personal to flip through.  Now I know that those strange looking pines on the tops of the gunks are rare pitch pine barons.  Now I understand there may be some small patches of old growth hemlock to consider by the cliff-sides.  There are other sky-lakes, I’ve never heard of.  And the wonderful naturalist my father introduced me to a few month’s back, Paul Huth, is quoted extensively in this book, on matters of local botany. 

I brought the book along and some plastic flowers my dad said he wanted, a book of Li Shangyin’s poetry that had just arrived and made myself ready around eight to head up to meet him at the Minnewaska upper parking lot.  In the other room I heard my wife, clearing her throat, a morning ritual.  She isn’t normally up this early and I brought her some coffee and invited her, as I had last night,  to join me this morning for a walk around lake Minnewaska.  And without too much fuss, she decided to come along. 

Uncharacteristically early this morning.  I’ve been late eight out of nine times we’ve rendezvoused.  But this time we were ahead of time and with no one save a park ranger in a pickup in the parking lot we sat back and admired the extraordinary view out to the Catskills off in the distance.  Many of the peaks were covered in snow and the sky was bright blue.  It all looked magnificent. 


Dad showed up and we snapped some photos and made our way to the carriage trailhead which was completely covered in ice and snow.  I don’t think it had occurred to any of us that the path would be iced over and impassable.  My father tested the road and wisely piped up that it didn’t seem safe.  My wife needed no further convincing and a quick chat with the ranger confirmed that all the trails were like that and that it would be slow going in any direction.  We enjoyed the guest house bathroom and the diorama of the park they have laid out, some of the stuffed animal representations, the fisher, the twin timber rattlers, the old photos of Wildamere.  But by now it was clear we’d need to  go somewhere else, somewhere down out of the Trapps, where the snow was already long gone. 


Later we parked in the head of the River to Ridge trail, just outside of New Paltz, there by the Wallkill River.  I’d always wanted to see what the river does on this western side, after it vanishes along old Huguenot Street on the eastern shore.  I guessed that all those mighty trees, growing out like knots of a single purpose were those riverside silver maples that you see further down on the trail by the bridge over the Wallkill.  We were three on a broad carriage road and I saw a lady approaching and I bid her good morning.  Her reply was “move over.”  It took me a pregnant pause to realize that she wanted us to give her space on the trail and that she hadn’t asked, she’d demanded.  My father and my wife were oblivious, but I let out an audible “Please!', and vexed about this slight needlessly for the remainder of the walk.

Friday, 01/22/21

Working Day For Him


Got a package the other day that was a well wrapped rectangle, too big, too heavy to be a book.  I could tell from the shipping address that it must have come from my godmother in Vermont.  I opened to find a lovely old Chinese print of two birds on a flowered stem.  My wife confirmed that the calligraphy had to do with birds on an almond tree. Remarkably, my wife regarded the print favorably.  She is often a harsh critic of stereotypical Chinese motifs. Inside though, there was no explanatory note so I resolved to ring her and learn more.


Left her a message and she called me back just as I was heading out to do my evening bike ride.  It was 3:50PM.  It was getting dark.  If I waited much beyond twenty minutes I’d likely have to shorten my ride as it would become too dark.  Still I took the call and relaxed into the warmth of her lovely familiar voice.  This, painting, which now hung there in our dining room, was from the estate of a wonderful priest named Father John, whom she had introduced to us when we lived in Hong Kong many years ago.  We went and visited him on Cheung Chao island where he lived and enjoyed the time chatting idly. 


We never properly discussed religion, as I recall.  I would have been willing, but I was likely obsequious as a curtesy.  I can remember him flashing angry once when he discussed the way Filipinas lived in many houses as maids, as a savagery.  He was right.  And I can recall my wife trying to be polite and suggesting that would love to welcome him to our place the next Sunday.  Um, that’s a working day for him, honey. 


I would have enjoyed learning more about his practice and what he saw and what he believed about his mission and the Chinese and the Filipinos he met and all the foreigners like me who’d passed through the Hong Kong on his watch and developed a rapport that let me ask him more about his faith of conversion and the mighty momentum of Chinese civilization, but we never stayed in touch and I never saw him again, after he returned to Vermont.  But now, a reminder of his work, echoed into my life and now my dining space, from something he found meaningful from China evoking a strange section of life when Hong Kong as my home.  

Thursday, 01/21/21

Your Vacuous, Non-Plan


Joe did well today.  I wish you well Joe.  A lot of people do.  Everyone I know is routing for you.  I liked your speech.  It felt like a tonic.  It seemed anchored.  We didn’t need soaring rhetoric.  We needed simple truths.  Just the facts.  Genuine, approachable delivery. I allowed myself to believe that others in the country were also connecting with him in the same way I was.  Seductive, considering our national message of renewal, restart, rebirth, redemption, reconciliation, repetition, manifest. New guy in town, from now on. 

Don?  Shameful, sulking undignified, half message to no one, before boarding his helicopter.  You wouldn’t even mention his successors name.  Be-best Melania.  Stay tan Don.  A fittingly shambolic end to the least impressive attempt at a presidency any living person can remember.  The five people who died at the Capitol that day are your authorship as are the four-hundred thousand lives who passed while you improvised your vacuous, non-plan, lurching from one gut-level impulse to another, ultimately, transparently only really concerned about yourself. 

Amanda Gorman, our national poet, thank you.  You were wonderful.  I don’t believe I watched anyone from that day a second time.  But you, I did.  I liked the way you used your hands and used space when speaking.  I like how you drew from a myriad traditions and made it your own.  I love that you were fiendishly crafting this poem of yours, when you had to adapt and integrate the insurrection-of-the-duped into what it was you had to say.  “The Hill We Climb”, active tense in progress, forever, leading as other’s have led “way up on a hill, let’s try it one-time y’all” as Sly told the crowd.  I’m glad we have poets like Ms. Gorman.  Poets that are just starting out.  Glad the seventy-seven-year-old had the courage to let her go ahead on.


Noble, to see the former presidents on the dais, with no power other than the dignity of their presence.  The man who was till only minutes ago the president, undignified, illegitimate in absence. A ceremony to transfer power that I still believe in.  I now magically agree with most of the nation that Biden is now in power.  Don didn't prove necessary to cast this spell.  He is now out of power and that spell is finally broken.  May Joe get a few base-hits in the coming weeks.  Good luck to you President Biden.  Good luck to you Vice President Harris.  May the wind blow long at your backs. 

Wednesday, 01/20/21

To the Crime Scene


Strange evening last night.  We returned home from an exhausting thirteen hour round trip drive to the border at Niagara Falls and my wife immediately received a distressed call from a friend of hers, in China.  Her daughter, was staying alone at her husbands house in Poughkeepsie and someone had tried to break in to the home.  We called the police as she asked.  They were already aware.  And soon we were suited back up for the outside and on our way to the crime scene across the river.  


We pulled up and there were two or three squad cars and some Vassar College campus security.  I talked to a security team member and he suggested we wait in the car.  Around that time a cop car pulled up behind us and we were effectively stuck there anyway.  Eventually a cop came to inquire and we explained that we were friends of the family.  They said they’d let us in in shortly.  We were worried because the poor girl was only just arrived in the U.S. and didn’t speak English comfortably. 

After watching the cops convene by flashlight and lead a dog around the area we were finally told we could go in and my wife and I introduced ourselves to this frightened young lady.  The kitchen door was smashed.  A large plant pot had been tossed through.  Someone entered and made off with a wallet.  Fortunately no one was hurt.  We’d offered to take the girl to our place so she’d feel safe, but hen her step dad arrived, and surveyed the scene it was clear he wanted privacy which we granted them. 

One more reason to feel shame about my homeland just now.  What a mess.  Someone feels brazen enough to smash a glass door open in a dense suburban, off-campus environment.  Someone watched and discerned that she was alone, and they could probably get away with whatever they wanted quickly.  Someone gone beyond the point of caring. Here’s a young person just a few weeks into America, into Poughkeepsie and they can only surmise that it is a Hobbesian nightmare.    




Tuesday, 01/19/21

The Foreseeable Be Monochrome


Third time now this way, through Liberty, over to Seventeen, up to Binghamton. Instead of staying west on 17, today we continued north to Corning and on to Auburn.  Auburn was not exactly on the way.  But it was the home of the New York Governor, New York Senator and Secretary of State, the man for whom we can thank for Alaska, Mr. William Seward.  My little one is doing a report for history class on the man and though the museum was closed for Covid, I thought we could swing by and take a quick look.  This is how Walter Starhr author of “Seward, Lincoln’s Indispensable Man”, describes Auburn New York, at the time Seward moved there in 1840:  “. . . the many small businesses in and about Auburn, including saw mills, carpenter shops, cabinet makers, flour mills and cloth factories.  Auburn was an eager, expanding entrepreneurial town, just the place for a young lawyer to start life.”


I had scheduled a call and it extended, of course, till the time we drove into Auburn.  About thirty-minutes earlier, I’d handed the driving responsibility over to the Mrs. We drove through some remarkable pine barrens completely covered in many feet of snow, testifying to the completely different climate they have here than we do down state.  As we hit the Auburn main street, heading into town I told the person I was speaking with that I’d need to call them back.  We drove right past the museum the first time and then turned and parked inside.  My little one was only now aware of why it is we’d stopped in this small town.  She exhaled, loudly and reluctantly agreed to walk around the building with me. There were cars but no signs of life inside and after a few pics we drove on.

Why does it always snow and rain and generally wax overcast when I travel up this way?  I have some vaguely sunny memories of our day driving about in Buffalo but all the time en route there and back seems to have been grey.  Today is grey. Any memory I have of Auburn will for the foreseeable be monochrome. 


By the time we reach the Niagara Falls border crossing, the older one informs us that she’ll be at least another thirty minutes.  We’d intended to go and get whatever Buffalo’s best pizza is and chow it on the ride home.  In an instant we decide to zip back into Buffalo and get it now.  Twenty-minutes in and we’re pulling up into Boccee Club Pizza which was well-reviewed.  We loaded up two pies and some mozzarella sticks into the trunk.  The lady at Starbucks next door spilled half my doppio on to the counter and smiled and apologized but didn’t think to refill it until I mentioned to her that this would be nice. 


Back at the boarder, my daughter is still progressing. “I’ll be there soon”, she texts.  Right.  “How soon?  When, exactly?” Wait.  “Twenty-minutes.”  She must be having a very long good bye with her boyfriend.  When she pops out the border I go out in the rain to meet her and help her with her luggage.  It’s wonderful to see her again.  She seems, an adult.  In the car we dive into the two pies.  One is better than the other.  I’d give Boccee and A-.  Still, I eat many slices happily filling myself.  Driving home along 90 it has started to snow, just like last time. 

Monday 01/18/21

Sunday, January 17, 2021

Consider It A Blessing


William Seward was born near what is today Woodburry Common and after some early days as student upstate and then a teacher down in Georgia, where he may have fathered a child, he made his life in state of New York, moving his family up to Auburn New York near Syracuse.  The little one is doing a paper on this member of Lincoln’s team of rivals, his secretary of state and the gent we have to thank for Alaska.  But back in 1855 when she was to write about him it was all about the Kansas and Nebraska Act and the violation of the Missouri Compromise and the repugnant Fugitive Slave Law.  Despite this being a time when Congress people beat one another to within an inch of their lives in the halls of Congress, it was interesting to note that Seward apparently threw Washington D.C. parties in those days that were well attended and enjoyed by the likes of Jefferson Davis. 

We need to drive up to Buffalo again.  Yes.  Buffalo, again.  Someday I’ll wish my older daughter would visit.  Tomorrow she’s asking me to pick her up.  Consider it a blessing.  On the way to Buffalo, you could pass through Auburn.  It isn’t open to the public but you could check it out.  If I ask the little one, she’ll say “not needed.”   But if just show up there, well, there you are.  You can take a photo.  We have also had a look and I think I have identified one of the landmark spots for Buffalo pizza.  It appears to be a thing.  We’ll pick up the older one, and dial in an order and in spite of my wife’s tidiness, we’ll have a feast on the drive back.


Yesterday down the trail towards Gardiner near the McMansion bluff one and then another owl took off above me and the soared around and around over the swamp. I suspect they were barred owls.  I kept hoping they might spy something worth diving down for.  At one point I imagined one of them was flying back, in hopes of returning to the same tree they set off from.  But then, in an instant I imagined she had spied me and this meant she banked another turn as I was still there contaminating things. 

Listening to Trouble’s “This Is the Modern World” show today.  Had it on while I wrote.  Took it out to the kitchen and listened to her spin some Ethiopian reggae and then some Angela Munoz that sounded for all the world like Amy Winehouse while I made everyone veggie tacos.  Today the trail was so crowded.  It’s overcast and cold but people need an egress.  Everyone seemed to want to be outside.  I guess its also a three-day weekend, come to think of it.  Martin Luther King Jnr., indeed.  MLK seems a proper meditation for this cacophonous turning point we're all staring down this week. 

Sunday, 01/17/21

Afterglow of Our Call


The cohesive dynastic narrative, tracing one large continuous period to another, Qin to Han, Tang to Song, leaves a yawning gap for the period between Han and Sui.  The Wei, The Six Dynasties, The Sixteen Kingdoms.  I’ve been interested in this “early medieval” period for while now.  Decentralized, but unlike the fall of Rome, the realm was still intellectually electric, this is when Buddhism for example, properly begins to metastasize throughout the civilization. The Cambridge History of China series, had never published the volume for this period until just recently.  It is during this period, in the Eastern Jin (the second of the Six Dynasties) that Tao Yuan Ming ‘returned home’ and cultivated the life of an aesthetic scholar recluse.

Thursday morning distracted, I read “In Reply to Aide P’ang”” and thought immediately of a friend with whom I’d spoke on the phone, not so long before. The client call faded in importance as my eyes read once and then again, this fearless attestation to friendship.  Transcribing it in full, I shot it off to my chum suggesting the afterglow of our call:


"I read the poem with which you presented me over and over and could not stop even if I had wished.  Since you became my neighbour, winter has a second time merged into spring.  Sincerely we have formed an excellent relationship, swiftly we have become old friends.   There is a common saying: 'Several meetings create friendship'.  How much our feeling surpasses this!   Yet human affairs are prone to go awry, and so we have to speak of parting.  Over what Master Yang sighed at, surely I have no ordinary grief.  I have been ill for many years and no longer write.  From the first I was not gifted and now I am old and sick as well.  Yet since I always follow the Chou rites' principle of reciprocation, I shall rely on my affection for you after our parting.  


Why should it need an old friend to appreciate one?

A 'lowered canopy' can do away with previous words.

There is a guest who approves my tastes;

Always he admires my woods and garden.

In our talk and accord there are no common modes;

What we discuss are the books of the sages.

Sometimes we have several gallons of wine

Which drinking at leisure, we enjoy ourselves.

Truly I am a scholar in retirement

And no longer involved with going to and fro

'In things the new, with men it is the old'

So with a feeble brush much may be conveyed.

Our feelings may reach beyond ten thousand li.

While our bodies are barred by rivers and hills.

May you be careful of yourself!

When will our next meeting be?


The spring of 423 AD


This morning, Saturday morning, I allowed myself the luxury of just reading.  I finished off the two volumes of Tao’s poetry.  Compiled by the late A. R. Davis, much of his commentary tends to be about dismissing arguments for one or another date for the particular poems. He must have been an angular professor. Though he does rise to wonder in his commentary on this particular piece, stating: “This poem may indeed rank as an outstanding poem of friendship in a literature which is very rich in examples of this categories.” My wife informs me that the very mention of the poet’s name invokes a feeling of withdrawal from the coils of public life to quiet resignation of a simple life in the country to any educated Chinese person.  And there are many wonderful invocations of this sentiment to consider and reflect upon personally.  Happily there is also a racy, erotically charged side of the recluse, also on display in “Quieting the Affections” that reads more like “Gypsy Woman” than the following of the Dao. 

"She lifts the red curtain and seats her self correctly;

Lightly touches the shirll cithern for her own pleasure. 

She releases the abundandt loveliness of her sldender fingers

And stirs the dancing of her wihite sleeves

She flashes her beautiful eyes in a circling glance

One acannot tell weather she is smiling or not

The tune is almost half over. 

Tha sun sinks by the wester room . . . "

A. R. Davis comments:  "The incongruity of the pice among T'ao's surviving work has been apparent not merely to modern Western readers.  It drew a mild reproach from T'al's early biographer and editor, Hsiao T'ung, who described it in his preface to the collected works as the only 'slight flaw in the white jade' . . . "

Looking over the stack on my desk.  I’ve lined up ten or so China titles I’ve gobbled up recently. To left are sixteen or so titles that await being read.  Chronologically?  Perhaps I should proceed that way.  In which case the earliest title I should move to is “The Four Books – The Great Learning, The Analects, Mencius and Maintaining Perfect Balance.”  Written nearly eight hundred years before Tao Yuan Ming, these fundamental classics are arranged in this volume to illustrate some of the great Song scholar Zhu Xi’s (1130 – 1200) study notes.  These became the must read, orthodox interpretation for all the subsequent exam students during the Ming and the Qing.  Holding this little volume, I’m reminded that scholars spent decades trying to memorize the contents, and later Zhu Xi’s critique.  To think of all the eyes that have gazed upon these words.

Saturday, 01/16/20