Pedestrian Walkways of New York

My delighted obsession with the pedestrian walkways of New York actually got its start far away from the Big Apple.

When I lived in Turkey’s big city, Istanbul, a sore point was the constant encroachment of construction onto places where I had to walk. Construction sites would spill over onto the sidewalk, sparks flying, pushing me into the street to squeeze anxiously alongside the hot, greasy, unpredictable tide of cars and taxis and motorbikes.

Each time this happened, it was a small reminder that—although the point of a city is human habitation—this city, this place, was in some ways not made for or meant for people. The needs and feelings of actual human inhabitants was not the point here; we were just an inconvenient annoyance hindering other purposes.

This is why I am so fixated on the pedestrian walkways of New York. In as dense and valuable place as Manhattan, there is also a constant rhythm of deconstruction, construction, development. But here, when the construction overflows onto sidewalks, they build elaborate tunnels of wood planking, fencing, and other barriers that protect pedestrians from both onslaughts of construction and cars. These “pedestrian walkways” are scrupulously labeled and marked with arrows guiding you along the designated path, scooping you into their dark forest-green plywood corridors and depositing you safely on the other side.

Some of the walkways are so thoroughly encompassing, insulated, winding, and mysterious that I like to imagine I will walk in and come out somewhere else, like Narnia or Middle Earth.

It is a nice fantasy because, even if you do not end up in another world, you’re not too disappointed: on the other side, you’re still in New York City, a kind of magical place that does its best to hold a genuine regard for the people who live here.

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Gratitude is not a Virtue

Mauerpark, Prenzlauer Berg, Berlin, 1996, Deutschland#Mauerpark, Prenzlauer Berg, Berlin, 1996, Germany

It is often said that gratitude is a virtue, and being grateful for what we have is a precondition for happiness. Besides that gratitude is often invoked in moments of preachiness and attempts to exert social control—”be grateful, young lady”—I have been skeptical of gratitude as an idea. I don’t mean the linguistic politeness formula of saying “thank you” in response to courtesy—I mean the idea that one should exist in a constant state of being actively thankful for every little blessing, and that if you are not, you are an “ingrate” and you will not be happy.

For me, I don’t associate being “grateful” with being happy. I associate happiness with the opposite of gratitude—with taking for granted. I am happiest in those moments, or during those periods of life, when the things I love and want and need seem so abundant and secure that I do not have to be actively grateful for them. You know what I’m referring to—the times when you choose not to spend time with a loved one, because you know your loved one will be with you forever. The times when you don’t watch the sunset on the lake, because you know you can watch it any day. The times you don’t eat until you’re stuffed, because you know there will still be enough to eat the next day. Gratitude forces you to think about all the bad things that can happen, but happiness is about forgetting about the bad possibilities—or perhaps happiness is a world where bad things don’t happen as much.

In other words, there is something better than gratitude. There is the feeling of being so secure in what you have that you do not need to be “grateful” for it. There is the feeling that what you want or need is so abundant, or so accessible, or so equitably distributed, that you can afford to take it for granted. There is the feeling of giving to others for its own sake, and not expecting any prescribed attitude in return. There is the possibility of a world where compassion and generosity are so commonplace, mutual, and so freely given, that they would not have to be met with gratitude.

Gratitude, in short, is not a virtue. Gratitude is an adaption to a world of scarcity.

I’m not absolutely against gratitude as a mindset. There are realities that we cannot change—tragedy, death—and gratitude is a tool to inoculate ourselves against those “whips and scorns of time.” It is also an appropriate response to the real charity, generosity, and love that does happen in our world as it currently exists. But why do we valorize and celebrate gratitude so much? Isn’t gratitude just a reflection of the default state of the world and life—unjust and cruel? Wouldn’t it be a better world if it were one where none of us had to be grateful for having our reasonable needs and wants met?

I, for one, live for those moments when I don’t have to be explicitly grateful—and I strive for a world where no one has to be grateful.

Image: Mauerpark, Prenzlauer Berg, Berlin, 1996, Deutschland

Routine Life as Adventure

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There are always flowers for those who want to see them.

–Henri Matisse

On a recent weekday, I was feeling too anxious and antsy to work, so I got up from my desk to take a cathartic walk. My walking led me into a secluded, wooded city park. I thought I was alone, but sensed movement. I look backward and spot a small, petite, furry brown creature transversing the trail. Then, another one emerges. The little mammals seem unaware or unperturbed by my presence. They waddle across the path, sniff the air non-committally, and then amble, disappearing, into the brush. Were they groundhogs? Beavers heading to the East River? Wombats escaped from the Bronx Zoo? Were they half-baked Pikachus that got loose while Nintendo was still working out the kinks on PókemonGO? The true identity of the small brown creatures is yet to be conclusively determined.

On a Friday night, I rolled into a party 2 hours late and breathlessly spilled to my date, “I spent all evening following the news of the coup in Turkey and making sure my friends were all alive. When I had had enough of that, I headed to Brooklyn. But when I got to Brooklyn I put the wrong address into Google Maps, so I ended up at a construction site. I wandered around the construction site for 15 minutes until I realized my mistake. Then I made it here.” The party host then handed me a mug with a hot liquid, which was either a revolting drink or a flavorful soup, and it occurred to me that priming and perception have a lot to do with taste.

The Saturday after that, at a beach in South Jersey, I collapsed, again breathless, onto my towel. Where were you? my friends asked. “I was on an adventure,” I announced. I explained that I had swum far away from the shore, away from most of the other swimmers on the clothing-optional beach. Then I floated onto my back and closed my eyes. When I opened them, I didn’t know where I was and didn’t see anyone around–the shore nearest to me was an empty strand. I put it together that I had floated out of the clothing-optional area, into and then past the clothed beach, and into some closed-off section of the beach. In order not to get in trouble–possibly excommunicated?–from the beach, I needed to swim against the current, back into the clothing-optional section, without landing on the clothed beach or being sighted by clothed swimmers. Thus ensued a desperate, existential swim against the inexorable Atlantic tide, with each stroke seeming to send me reeling further away from my destination–my destination being the bright white sign announcing “Beyond This Point You May Encounter Nude Bathers.” But I reached this sign made it back to tell the tale.

For most of my 20s, I have moved to a different city every year, traveling extensively and having the typically adventurous adventures that I have been writing about over the past 6 years: being tear-gassed, fleeing police, sneaking into castles and abandoned hotels, climbing a mountain on the border of Russia and seeing the moon closer and brighter than you’ve ever seen it. Now that I have been living in the same city for almost two years, and I don’t have immediate plans to move abroad, I have begun to worry that my life is going to become routine, quotidian, banal–in short, I will stop having adventures.

Looking back on my past 2 weeks, though, it occurs that adventure might be more of an attitude, or choice, or state of mind, than an external reality.

Age is Not a Number

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“The useless days will add up to something. The shitty waitressing jobs. The hours writing in your journal. The long meandering walks. The hours reading poetry and story collections and novels and dead people’s diaries and wondering about sex and God and whether you should shave under your arms or not. These things are your becoming.”

— Sheryl Strayed, Tiny Beautiful Things

I’ve always suspected that age is a flexible construct.

When I was 12 years old, I knew with certainty I was not a teenager, and did not want to be a teen, yet. Therefore, on what would have been my 13th birthday, I resolved that I was not turning 13. I announced that everyone around me continue to regard me as 12 years old. I didn’t have many friends my age, and the adults around me obliged. I still consider myself as never having been 13.

It’s not just me. Others have this intuition. When I later agreed to turn 14–as I did in the end–I was such a serious, stoical kid that people started saying of me, “She’s 14 going on 40.” There are other related formulations, including “I’m 54 years young,” or “I’m a grandma on the inside.” You can see it in this interview with Maurice Sendak (“I’ll never turn 10”) or this interview with Kanye West (“forever the 5-year-old of something”). We all are in our own ways trying to manipulate, subvert the rules of numerical age, to escape stereotypes of our empirical age group, our generation, or to try to represent some deeper truth of our selves and our personal identities.

But the rule-bending, I suspect, is indicative of a deeper problem: age is not a number. Of course, there are exceptions if, let’s say, you are a medical doctor examining a person’s physiology. But the truths that most of us seek when we ask someone their age, or that we communicate through the construct of our age, cannot be encapsulated in a digit.

Therefore, I believe the whole idea and practice of communicating age has to be deconstructed and redesigned.

What if instead of “I’m 26 years old,” I could say, “I am 23 countries, 3 major heartbreaks, 2 higher educational degrees, 3 emergency room visits, 5 tear-gassings, 1 house explosion, 5 internships, 1 near-death experience, 10 jobs, 3 divorces and 3 step-parents, 20 house moves, 60 students, 3 languages, 9 memorized poems” old? What if our age wasn’t a single, dry number? What if our age were the essence of our experiences and worldview? What if ever time we said our age, it was a story, an oral history, an epic poem, a song, a dance, a word?  What if our age were tied to something else, anything else more idiosyncratic or meaningful than a 1 – 3 digit number that represents a psychologically arbitrary number of planetary orbits around the sun?

If age were not a number–how old would you be?

Top image source here. Bottom image mine, taken in Jodhpur.

Growth comes from inside

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Once, there were two brothers who farmed a rice paddy. When they came of age, one brother announced, “I will now seek wisdom and enlightenment by traveling the world.” The otherbrother announced, “I will become wise while staying right here.” The traveling brother donned his pack, and left. 40 years later, the traveling brother returned, a halo of enlightenment surrounding his visage. “I have seen cities and villages, deserts and seas, affluence and destitution,” he proclaimed, “and I am enlightened.” The other brother turned, and a halo of enlightenment was also illuminating his visage. “I have never left this plot of land. I have watched the sun rise and set over the same hills, the plants sprout and wither in the same earth, the waters rise and fall in the same river. I am enlightened.”

I heard this parable in high school. I have never again heard it anywhere since, and the exact words have long since escaped me–but yet, as I have beaten my own paths through cities and villages, deserts and seas, mountains and steppes, the message and question have stayed with me. What is the source of growth and wisdom? Is it something we go into the world and seek through a variety of experience–or is the potential to grow a power that we had inside of us all along?

In Defense of Not Having Goals

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Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.

—Soren Kierkegaard

I always admired my goal-oriented friends. They had 10-year plans outlining their career trajectory; graphs predicting their millionaire status by age 30; real estate purchases and investments charted; and one individual even delivered a “quarterly report” on his vaunted progress toward his inexorable success. It was charismatic, visionary, and I was drawn to it, aspired to it.

But applying their approach to my own life never worked. I could rarely see more than one step ahead of where I was. Trying to determine my destination in advance that way felt inauthentic, ingenuous, a bit self-absorbed, in a way that I couldn’t articulate. I was satisfied with my work and play and life. Yet in the back of my mind, my seeming inability to set and commit to a big goal left me feeling inadequate in relation to my hyper goal-driven friends. I assumed that, despite my contentment, my efforts weren’t as good–because they didn’t obviously add up to an audacious outcome.

In time, I learned to resolve this internal conflict. Now, I can see that I just have my own approach, it just happens to be quite different from the one followed by my goal-oriented friends. I call it a process-oriented approach.

In my approach, I don’t try to define in advance the outcomes of my efforts, and then reflexively prescribe myself the process and practices that will get me to that outcome. I have come to believe that this goal-oriented approach has some major flaws. What if I don’t enjoy the work, the lifestyle, the process of reaching the goal? What if I don’t want to make the world conform to my singular vision of myself? What if I want to serve others rather than make the world serve me? What if I had to ignore other opportunities, neglect curiosities, and delay many a great many gratifications in order to stay on track toward my goal? And worst–the question that always plagued me when setting goals–what if, after everything I’ve invested or sacrificed, the destination isn’t what I thought it would be?

Instead, I order my life the other way around: I start with the process and leave the outcome open-ended. What activities, tasks, and projects do I like doing and being part of? Does the work I’m doing enable me to support myself? Am I interested and challenged and enriched by the work I’m doing and the play I’m engaged in? How often am I bored? How often am I challenged? Does my work and leisure time align with my values and principles? Do I have freedom and autonomy, but also the embrace of a community? Does my work generally support efforts that aim to expand beauty and fairness in the world?

These questions–not “where will I be in 10 years”–are my guiding ones, and they have worked for me so far. In fact, a recent article vindicates my approach. According to one professor, the process-oriented approach not only has the potential to provide more overall happiness in life. It can also get you to outcomes in the end:

…I recommend … an alternative approach, which is to become a little more aware of what it is that you’re really good at, and what you enjoy doing. When you don’t need to compare yourself to other people, you gravitate towards things that you instinctively enjoy doing, and you’re good at, and if you just focus on that for a long enough time, then chances are very, very high that you’re going to progress towards mastery anyway, and the fame and the power and the money and everything will come as a byproduct, rather than something that you chase directly in trying to be superior to other people.

I’ve become content with my lack of discrete goals and comfortable with the possibility that my existentialism-infused, process-oriented days either may, or may not, add up to the “big goal” that my goal-oriented friends’ will. But I will have lived each and every day in a way that suits my interests, challenges me, captivates my imagination, and aligns with my values. To me, that in itself would be a worthy goal.

Purple sunset shells

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On the beaches of Vancouver were scattered hundreds of iridescent, opalescent purple shells. From a distance, they looked like shards of the sky deposited by the purplish sunset. Close up, you could see the delicate violet gradations and subtle shades.

They attracted me, so I picked them up and collected some in my pocket, and took them back to the room where I was staying. I envisioned handing them out to the friends and family I’d see the next day.

But, when I looked at them the next day, they were dull and chalky. Taken out of their environment, they lost their luster.

In the end, I returned them back to the beach, where they could once again soak up the color of the sunset.

Snowstorms, Anarchy, and New York

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“Each city receives its form from the desert it opposes.”

— Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities

When I was a student, I attended boarding school in a cold Midwestern town where it snowed a lot and often. After a big snowstorm, the roads would be impassable by car, so I would take walks through the middle of the streets. It felt transgressive and a tinge anarchistic, to be a pedestrian strolling where normally only automobiles could pass. I would recite poetry or entertain apocalyptic fantasies of being the last person on earth. I could have been the survivor of an apocalypse because I was always alone, the only one treading the snowy street of the small town.

In the aftermath of a snowstorm in New York has the same transgressive feel. Stores, restaurants, and workplaces shut down. Snow gets plowed from the roads and piles up on the sidewalks. Transport stops on the roads. Blizzard winds roar over the Hudson and whip through the city streets into fierce wind tunnels while streetlights alternate colors impotently. We can live without cars and buses and streetlights–what other institutions can we tear down? What if the entire city got buried in snow, and a new city was built on top of the clean white layer?

In New York, I still walk in the middle of the street during a snowstorm and entertain these fantasies, but the difference is I am not the only one in the middle of the street. There are sledders and tobogganers; joggers; dog walkers; hide and seek players; football catchers; hooligans climbing on mailboxes; sirens in the distance and Latin music emanating from 24 hour delis. The streets empty except for people roaming through them are still subtly anarchistic and apocalyptic, but I am no longer alone at the dissolution of society and the end of the world.

Difficult Names and Cultural Erasure

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It begins
with your second last name
gone missing from your mailbox,
school ID, and learner’s permit.
It is hard to explain to your relatives
back on the Island.
Your mother says,
you had it
when you left home,
where is it now?
You cannot claim
to have misplaced
your mother’s surname.

–“Crime in the Barrio” in Call Me María by Judith Ortiz Cofer (via)

“Give your daughters difficult names. Give your daughters names that command the full use of tongue. My name makes you want to tell me the truth. My name doesn’t allow me to trust anyone that cannot pronounce it right.”

–Warsan Shire

Weeks ago, I was proctoring an exam at my university’s law school. Everyone was stressed but one student was especially frantic. She had claimed a spot in an exam hall based on the first letter of her last name, but the official exam listing had assigned her to a different room. She was disputing it with the head proctor: “My last name is de la Rioja, Rioja, not de la. I should have been assigned to this room, with the R names, not the other room with the D names.” The head proctor was indifferent. “You need to tell the administration to change that.”

Some time ago I was getting dinner with a public school teacher. This person was white, but she worked in predominantly low-income black and Latino neighborhoods. “You would not believe the names!” she commented blithely.

During add/drop period at the beginning of a semester at my university, professors at my graduate school often begin with calling attendance. It should be quick, but it always takes twice as long as it needs to because of professors stumbling–apologetically to be sure–over the names of international students. The Chinese sanguinely provide their American names. Even I generally call my classmates by their “American names” if they provide them, and in Nagaland, I often interacted with people I met through their “Christian names” rather than their given names.

People’s identities are complicated–certain parts of our identities may come to the foreground in interactional certain contexts, sometimes prompting different variations of our names. But the patterns of whose names tend to be changed, and in what ways, by whom, and with what consequences, is clear. Is this a world we want to create–one where cultural backgrounds are erased and given dominant-culture replacements? A world where a supposedly global-minded educational institution does not know how to handle its international students’ last names? A world where certain names are written off as difficult compared to an arbitrary standard?

I say no, and that we all have reflection, self-work, listening, and targeted learning to do to put a stop to this erasure in the domain of one of the most intimate words that an individual possesses–their name.

Photo: “Lady Liberty” by SETH at the Museum of Public Art, LA 

Language of Locality

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 “I’m not a national at all. How could I come from a nation? How can a human being come from a concept? … Histories are real, cultures are real, but countries were invented. … All experience is local. All identity is experience. I’m not a local. I’m multi-localMy experience is where I’m from. What if we asked, instead of ‘Where are you from?’–‘Where are you a local?‘ This would tell us so much more about who and how similar we are.”

— Taiye Selasi, “Don’t ask where I’m from, ask where I’m a local

To be clear, nation-states (countries) are just as “real” as cultures and histories. Culture, histories, and nations are all social constructs. All are “invented concepts” that are real in their effects and consequences. A nation may be newer, larger, or more abstract than a culture or a history, but fundamentally, nations and cultures are the same types of conceptual thing–all are social constructs based on shared cultural knowledge.

The crux of the matter, though, is this: given a wide range of social constructs at our disposal, which constructs more accurately reflect and describe our individual identities? Nationhood, as we all assume when we ask “Where are you from”? Or something like “locality”?

The Mountains or the Sea

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A common question formula, especially in Beginner English lessons, is “Where would you rather live: in the mountains, or by the sea?” The assumption is that these are opposing choices, and selecting one reveals something elemental about you.

I’ve lived for a time by the sea before, but this month has been the first and longest stint I’ve lived in the mountains. Being here has made me challenge the assumption behind that dichotomous question. The mountains and the sea appear different, on their surface, but experientially, have remarkable similarities.

This month, I’ve been in Northeast India–a mountainous Himalayan region thrust between Bangladesh, Nepal, Burma, and China–staying in a village about 4,700 feet above sea level. Just as by the sea, here in the mountains, the landscape is vast and your gaze extends as far as it can reach, with the far distances eliding into pastel watercolor versions of their nearer selves.

Like the seaside, the mountain landscape seems still and unmoving, but really it changes imperceptibly, moment by moment, as clouds shift, the sun moves across the wide sky, small figures in distant villages conduct their daily business, and bluish smoke rises from kitchens at suppertime.

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Like the seaside, adverse weather is truly extreme. When it rains, it drenches. Relentless rains pour down in buckets all night. While leading a class at one point, the rain on the metal roofing was so loud that it was impossible to hear my own voice, let alone make it heard to the students. When it’s not raining, it is wet. In the distance you see a cloud, and a minute later, your world is enveloped in a shroud of condensation: you are inside the cloud. Living inside a cloud takes some getting used to, such as not being able to see past five feet in front of you, and the reality that your clothes simply never dry after being washed.

On the seaside, it seemed to be an assumption that some things would have to be rebuilt anew each year after the onslaught of winter monsoons. Here also, recovering and rebuilding from rains is a near-constant effort. The Himalayas are young mountains made of still-loose sediments. Consequently, roads routinely collapse from the sodden weight of water and mud, a phenomenon called “sinking roads.” Landslides have been known to down whole houses, or schools. Just as power outages were to be expected in my former town on the seaside, electricity here is categorized as “regularly irregular.”

Like the seaside, mountains elicit that fundamental sense of reflection, insignificance, and awareness of one’s own small place in the wide world.

There are, of course, meaningful differences between my experiences on the sea and in the mountains, but sometimes expected unity is more interesting than expected difference. Or, as they say here in India, there is unity in diversity.

So maybe it is time to rewrite that question based on anthropological findings; from now on, I will ask my English students, “Would you rather live in a desert, or in a rainforest?”

Risk and Sidewalk Subway Grates

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Recently, the Village Voice published an article: “Twenty Ways to Die in New York.” Though comprehensive, it misses one crucial way, possibly the way that most intensely structures my daily life. That way is: electrocution by metal grate.

When I was an impressionable child visiting New York City for the first time, I heard a harrowing story. A woman stepped on one of the many metal grates or vents that dot the city sidewalks. Typically this would not be a storyworthy occasion but on that day, a wire had broken loose, touched the grate, and electrified it. The woman who stepped on that grate was electrocuted and, according to my memory, died instantly.

Whether or not this story was true, it was still clear in my mind when I moved to New York last year. At first I avoided walking on all iron grates and vents, either consciously or unconsciously assuming them all to be potential hazards in the urban landscape.

However, in the months since, my relationship with metal grates has become more nuanced. Specifically, they come to symbolize Risk, and how I respond to Risk depends on my mood and state of mind. If I am confident and happy, I stride over the grates with gusto. I taunt life: Things are going great, just try to mess this up. Or: My life is and has been full and interesting, and if ended now I would have nothing to regret.

If I am stressed, anxious, sad, or insecure, I avoid stepping on the metal grates. Life is already going badly enough, why make it worse? Or: I’ve accomplished nothing with all the opportunities I’ve been given, wouldn’t dying now be shameful? Coming home late at night, I avoid walking over the grates, as if being electrocuted is the biggest threat at 1 a.m. on Broadway.

If I am bored, the metal grates seem especially able to draw my attention, and as I approach them I psych myself up. What if the next grate is the one that’s electrified? I place my foot on the grate and feel a thrill through my spine, not of electrocution, but of excitement.

There is one attitude I can never have towards metal grates, though, and that is apathy or neutrality. Measuring and balancing risk always requires some kind of calculation and judgement.

That is why, to this day, with every encounter with a metal sidewalk grate I must examine my entire psychological state and philosophical outlook.

Light in New York City

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One of the first things I noticed after moving to New York was the light. Light is, typically, an amorphous and shapeless phenomenon. It might bathe you in its glow, cast long blurry shadows, blind you with its glare, or scorch you with its heat–but nevertheless it generally maintains a formless, fuzzy quality. In New York City, there is no such fuzziness: here, the light travels through a linear forest of skyscrapers getting progressively more bisected into sharp angles, rectangles, polygons, and shapes of all sorts which are cast in sharp relief onto the structure walls. Alternatively, the light from the setting sun may strike a series of windows, which in turn reflect the light back onto a building across the street, ad infinitum, casting a melange of jewel-like projections onto the structure walls around you.

I love these architectural-atmospheric interactions because they enliven even the most blase of buildings, turning them into scintillating canvases or real-life abstract palettes like something out of “The Dot and the Line.” In such an ironic and acerbic city, it’s a sincere little joy that I can latch onto in the late afternoons.

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