It is hard to find a sane person who doesn't mark the progress of time through either nostalgia or birthdays. Nostalgia, of course, is the wistful longing for some long-since-mutated characteristic of the past. Birthdays, plural only, refers to somebody besides yourself getting older. Not just a not-you aging, though, but a person to whom you're surprised is suddenly 30 and not, say, 15. This special "birthday human" is different for everybody, and can be more than one person. Generally, though, people who have spawned tend to confer the birthday clock onto their children: "I can't believe how old you are," "Just look at you," "You've gotten so big," and other insights designed to induce alcoholism and other suicidal tendencies in their targets. Which is a shame, because there's nothing sadder than a 7-year-old desirous of a drink, but hardly even knowing what tequila is. Anyway, I've been fortunate enough to have lived far, far, far, far, away from my family for most of my twenties. No doubt, they felt the same way. Perhaps more so. So although this distance in time and space has forced me to concentrate to remember that my Parental Units have, in fact, gotten older since I left for college, their personalities have changed only incrementally. Which makes me nostalgic for that well-worn Simpsons episode where everybody's favorite yellow-skinned, four-fingered family uses electroshock therapy to give each other what they deserve. The point being is that I've found myself surprised that my siblings are no longer the ages that they were when I left San Francisco a few days before my 18th birthday. In some part of my brain, there's always a slight recalculation to remember that my sister is no longer 12. And when my the opportunity arose to visit my brother as he turned 30 last weekend, my initial reaction was, "Who's turning 30?" Of course he's 30. I'm 32 - and a half, if we're being picky - and so therefore basic mathematics dictate that he should be 30. But in my head? There was that initial reaction brain-scratching moment where I assumed he couldn't be 30, because he's not even 16 yet. When we take our leave of certain friends and close relations, any repeat encounters seem to mentally reference our last engagement until we see them regularly enough to forget about that "last" encounter. At least personally, I've seen it occur with close friends, too. One friend whose wife is due with their first child next month will always be hunched over his computer in my head, coding or Warcrafting as a rum-and-Coke sweats a small puddle next to the keyboard. Or another friend, who had a significant other who was particularly memorable, will always be dating that person for just a moment more before I remember that their relationship has long since run its course. The specifics aren't important, just the vague, burning memories of ghosts long past. Even ghosts of the living. So it goes. So we use the birthdays of others close to us to remember times past. Some involve these nostalgic instigators, and some don't. With my brother on the Vermont-New Hampshire border, it's imperative that I visit my Boston friends. Almost to a person, I find my martial arts buddies stronger and tougher, my non-fighting friends wiser and even better looking than before, and a tsunami of memories crushing me in the best way possible at every corner. Here's where I used to see Bela Fleck and the Flecktones: now my employer has an office there. Harvard Square is where I used to carouse for books: now I avoid it like I used to avoid the fancier parts of Newbury St. Here's where I used to stumble, bleary eyed and on too little sleep, for Saturday morning beatings: well, that hasn't changed, at least. And Redbones is still around, and a dear friend who had a spate of horribly short rentals has been in the same place for years now. Everything changes, and nothing is truly lost.
Making pizza at Di Fara's, Brooklyn. Seth Rosenblatt (c) 2008. Besides being criminal, it is socially unacceptable to go to New York and not eat well. This is not to say that I am one of these deluded folks that thinks that the food there is better than the food in San Francisco, but the overall quality of grub is mighty fine indeed, and nothing less than world-class. You know this. However, the trip that the FMA and I took in December was her first encounter with the Big Apple, so it was only appropriate that the food we would eat would be different than what we could get in S.F. We had proper Tokyo-style ramen at Ippudo, a recently-opened branch of our favorite Japanese ramen joint. Ramen in Tokyo receives at least the same scrutiny that pizza does in New York. That's not to say that the best ramen in Japan is in Tokyo, but if you go to a place that's half-decent, you won't be disappointed. I first discovered Ippudo when I was living in an improbable gaijin house in the center of Tokyo's fancy-pancy Hiroo district. On the walk from Hiroo to Ebisu there was one of three branches of the local Tokyo chain of Ippudo. Open until 4 a.m., populated with a typical Tokyo mix of college students, partiers, and the occasional starving English teacher, they were known for their chashumen and their super-strong lemon sours. The FMA and I ate not once but twice at Second Ave Deli, which is no longer down in the Lower East Side but up in midtown, off Lex. Same people running it, same excellent food. Jewfood is in the FMA's blood, clearly, by the way she devoured the fried kreplach and the stacked sandwiches and the pickles and the Cel-Rey to wash it all down, and insisted we go back on Christmas morning. We beat the crowd by 10 minutes. We savored the divine garlic knishes at Yonah Schimmel's Knishery, had falafel from a cart near MOMA, had a not-kosher-in-ages meal for three days from the Carnegie Deli. You don't need a link to Carnegie. Check out 2nd Ave., trust me. We brought back two months' worth of bagels from Ess-a-Bagel and ate them in a month and a half. We had morning bagels regularly with craptacular machined coffee near the Avenue M station in Brooklyn, near where we were staying. We had a bartender who was a friend of a friend charge us $10 for $50 worth of drinks, we had two martinis for $5 in Midtown just to say we could. I think they used rubbing alcohol in place of vermouth. I took the FMA to a nice little French joint on 50th that suffers only from the goofy name of Chez Napoleon, just before hitting her first Broadway show - Spamalot, what else? Oh, and we had pizza. In New York. Shocking, I know. Now, for those who know me, I've been raised on as much on my Bubbe's kugel as I have on Tommaso's pizza. I'm not extremely picky about the pizza I eat: as long as I know in advance I'm getting ghetto crap, I can prepare myself to not be disappointed. Regina's in Boston has impressed me, and thanks to the recommendation of a friend the FMA and I met while traveling in China, Di Fara's ain't too bad, neither. So to speak. The line at Di Fara's, near my friend's place at which we were staying in Brooklyn, took about two hours to get through. The pizza was near-perfect, from the thickness of the crust - neither too doughy nor too crunchy - to the quality of the rich sauce or the ridiculously extravagant toppings the FMA insisted on. The massive leaves of basil were a nice touch, cut by the owner and sole chef Domenico. During the wait, his adult children helped with the prep cooking, but from throwing the dough to pulling it out of the oven, he was the only one to touch the pizza. I could've done without the extra layer of oil that he added after the pizza was done, but that's a small quibble for a pizza that's worth trekking off the beaten path. Six months later, I've finally worked off most of the extra weight I put on from this trip. I think.
The Brooklyn Bridge. Seth Rosenblatt (c) 2008. As I write this, I'm listening to "Wamono" by a Japanese band called Hifana. I found out about them through a guy on a mailing list that I joined back in the mid-90's when I left San Francisco for Boston, although that introductory Hifana e-mail - which came with YouTube links, not MP3s - was only sent last year. I never heard of them when I actually lived in Japan. I have found it utterly, ridiculously impossible to escape the trajectory of my personal history at times, and taking the FMA to New York last year only served to emphasize the point. Sometimes it can feel like a supernova three seconds from collapsing on itself. After only a day traversing Manhattan and Brooklyn, she turned to me and said, "It's great! But smaller than Tokyo..." I nodded in agreement. New York is smaller than Tokyo, home to fewer people who, one could argue, move at a slower pace. Thankfully, New York is also different, and in trying to eliminate the differences between them is to ignore the nuances that make them unique and worth visiting again. Then again, my favorite ramen joint from good ol' Toks, Ippudo, has opened a restaurant near NYU, and the ramen there was so close to identical to the original that I figured they cloned both the pig and wheat. I used to haunt Ippudo in the tiny hours with Phil from Sydney, surrounded by Japanese before they exited their larval state of college rebellion for the comforting dullness of sarariman life. Phil, of course, I haven't seen in years but I'll probably hang out with when I visit Sydney this fall for a wedding. The spirals of life widen and tighten just that much more, and that much more often, and sometimes it seems simultaneous. Last winter, though, I had no idea what to make of any of it, and I found myself walking across the Brooklyn Bridge. Not metaphorically, not semaphorically, but well and truly hauled my butt from one side of the East River to the other. Despite having visited New York at least a dozen times before, I'd never walked the Brooklyn Bridge. So on a day that would be far better suited to carving slalom trails into hillsides, or hunting wild game with chainsaws perhaps, the FMA and I instead trudged through the harsh wind cutting through downtown Brooklyn. We stopped for White Castle before leaving the comfort of the concrete jungle, and it was about as American as you could get. The Australian gal who'd never heard of sliders before she encountered two guys named Harold and Kumar was making smalltalk with the African-American server, who'd neither met someone from that sunburned country nor encountered a soul who hadn't eaten at White Castle at least once, and this was all happening down a small street off of Jay. Sufficiently filled with regurgiburgers, we headed towards the bridge. On a clear, warm summer day, it would've been staked out by a film crew. Five days before Christmas, it was empty but for a few nutso joggers (don't forget the soft "J"), couples basking in the romantic Atlantic winter blasts, and ice. Crossing the Brooklyn Bridge is not like crossing the Golden Gate, although both are endemic to their locales. On the Golden Gate, you are given priority by proximity: You are physically closer to the bay and vistas, with cars sequestered in the center. On the Brooklyn, you are raised above the traffic. Those differences represent a shift in the philosophical approach of the times. Both bridges represent significant architectural achievements for their times, but from a pedestrian's perspective the Brooklyn Bridge emphasizes the importance of man with its raised walkway that covers vehicles passing underneath and highlights the towers of Manhattan. The Golden Gate is flatter at the foot level but higher: the danger of the cars ever-present, bay looming beneath like a giant blue maw, and orange towers teasing you with their gaudy luminance. The Brooklyn Bridge is steely and foreboding, but that doesn't mean that it's not beautiful. That day, though, it was just friggin' cold. I have no idea what is taking a migratory break on my head, but at least the FMA looks good.
The Muppet Workshop, FAO Schwarz. Seth Rosenblatt (c) 2008. "Why do we have to come here," the grumpy cloth-covered doll pretends to sing. "I guess we'll never know," comes the response from its evil twin, although, let's be honest - they're both a bit fucked. And in the following lines, Jim Henson and his writers captured the soul of every perambulating curmudgeon, despite the fact that Statler and Waldorf never moved around much. I'm not sure if I qualify for such lofty company, but everybody else seems to think so and so here we are. No, I don't want to be here, except of course I'm here and enjoying the heck out of making you think that I don't like it. As I said: it's a slightly fucked way of looking at things. But there it is, and here I am, and you've read along so far so you might as well just keep on. Astute Big in Japan watchers have probably noticed a distinct lack of bloggety output in the past year. There's no one excuse, nor any particularly good one. Work blah blah tired blah controlled violence wah-wah. So last Saturday, I skipped on a house-warming that I was looking forward to because it felt like my head would explode if I didn't get some funwork done. You can now see the results of being a shut-in on a beautiful day at the Cold New York photo gallery linked. Clicking on the photo above works, too. I wrote briefly about two of those pics when I shot them back in December, as the East Coast did its usual schizophrenic weather pattern before deciding somewhere in early January that yes, it really was time for winter. Today's photo is slightly different. It's one of the hidden complexities of New York, if you have the money and you happen to have laughed at the muppets during your formative years and you can handle the crowds of stupidity sauntering through FAO Schwarz specifically and midtown Manhattan in general: You can buy your own muppet, chosen from a limited but expansive collection of parts. It is a strange time we live in. It's not enough to buy a replica of the characters that capture your imagination, to remind you of their stories and take screwdrivers to when you're 10 and bored on a Saturday afternoon. No, now we must make our own versions of them, manipulating the original tales to shove our own real-life avatars alongside Kermit and Miss Piggy and that freak with the beak, Gonzo. And Animal! Or Beaker... You can see the problem here. The corruption of the canon gets you to buy into the stories just that much further, but how much of your original experience is forgotten and replaced by that of your obsession with Your! Very! Own! Muppet! It weakens the original story that impacted on you and friends that you wouldn't meet for 10 years, but are eventually able to connect over because the narrative is shared. When you pay $200 for some well-trained technician to put together a series of cloth and plastic parts into a take-home device derived from a common pop-culture story, but essentially unrelated to anything in that narrative except perhaps your reactions to it, you're cheapening the story itself. Even at its core, the story doesn't matter - how it affects you does. The FMA routinely earns her nickname, and in discussing the commercialization of character crafting with her, she made an excellent point. It's one thing to choose muppety parts like you're making body modifications in a futuristic movie, but it's quite another when you're given a kit of wood, fabric, plastic, paint, and a glue-gun and shown how to make your muppet. There, the learning experience of creating merges with the entertainment of story-telling into something entirely different. And yet, when it comes down to it, who doesn't think it'd be cool to have your own muppet? There's hardly any delineation between where the story ends and the marketing begins.
My Financial and Menu Adviser visited dear old Lady Liberty today. My first time to visit her since the late 1980s, the weather was cold and blustery and the sky was harsh and crisp. It was the first or second official day of winter, and there was no global warming jokes to be told. However, "security" was yukking it up, big time. To visit Liberty Island, you must now wait in line not just to get on the ferry, but wait in line to run through a metal detector. This is an airport-style security checkpoint, where belts, jackets, wallets, cell phones, watches, nosehair trimmers, and, one supposes, cock-rings, all must be removed before you can proceed to the next line for the ferry. In the summer, this is probably fine. In the winter, it means that you stand around in a canvas tent, bereft of heat, while you hand your jacket to some Homeland "Security" associate sales representative. If your shoes set off the detector, then you take them off and run them through again, too. Of course, the people who decided not to have metal eyelets holding their shoelaces in place tracked in latent snow and ice, and so the floor you're standing on in your socked feet is wet. And so your socks are wet. I later learned that some of the six metal detectors were equipped with sandals, but you probably had to pay $5 to rent them for the 30 seconds you need them. In short, the path to Liberty is paved with ridiculousness, ineptitude, and poor signage. In my attempt to show the FMA the finer points of New York for her first visit, I needed to strike a balance between the cool and the touristy. The Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island fell into the latter category, strangely enough, but the good National Park Service couldn't be bothered to inform you that the last ferry from Liberty Island to Ellis Island was at 3 or 3:30. So, we missed the immigration museum on this trip - the consolation prize was the above photo, taken from the Battery Park pier.
It's entirely possible that I have visited Coney Island before. It's not like the place is as remote or as less-visited as Antarctica, evil machinations of property developers aside. If I have been there before this past Friday, though, I don't remember. It was a proper excursion. There were no other tourists, although I did come across about five other photographers. The occasional jogger (with a soft "j", according to Will Ferrell) attempted suicide by trotting past. The FMA and I wandered the desolate boardwalk and gawked at brightly-painted signage, not really protected in the slightest by our umbrellas as we were assaulted by a storm. Temperatures set a record low for the day, or the day following, but the weather is sort of irrelevant when Atlantic gusts are scaring off everybody but the insane and the seabirds.
My attempts to get going on this blog again have stuttered more than a bit, although I haven't stopped taking photos or writing. Halloween is my favorite holiday of the year, and there's no better place to spend it than in Boston. The leaves are in full blaze, woodsmoke fills the evening air, and the impending winter freeze is on everybody's minds. It's the kind of crispness that can sharpen the mind, or a knife. With the FMA off visiting her Parental Authorities for the first time in nearly three years, I was in Boston for a friend's wedding and stayed through All Hallow's. My original costume idea had to be ditched when I found out the theme of the party that my friends were taking me to, but I think I did alright for such short notice. More photos to come. If you recognize somebody in a photo or their costume, please send me a note.