We All Have A New York In Our Mind

There’s an extremely pleasant and very soothing documentary I watch when I want to relax.  Its called New York by Ken Burns.  I’ve watched it many times.  I was interested to find out the history of the city I grew up in of course, but on further watchings, I’ve come to enjoy the music in the documentary and its gentle pace.

There are a lot of great authors and intellectuals in the documentary.  There is also the faux English quasi Boston Brahmin, high preppy intellectual voice of George Plimpton, talking about how everyone has a New York in their mind.  I think about this a lot, because I grew up in the city and it wasn’t just a picture in my mind.  It was very real.

Two weeks ago, I went for my annual one day extravaganza of a trip to New York.  I went there to meet a friend who I haven’t seen in five years.  He was late, I got angry, hilarity ensued but really all was well at the end.

While I waited for my friend, I sat in Times Square and I saw the faces of the people coming into the city for the first time, the wonderment they had on their faces, how enthralling it all was.  At times I felt like my relationship with New York was more like this photograph:

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That’s me and New York is personified by Death.

But as I’ve aged, my point of view on the place has softened.  I enjoy it a lot more and most of all, I enjoy looking at the people there and how people react to the place.

We all have a New York in our mind:

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August 24 1997

As I write that date, it strikes me.  It seems at once recent and yet far away.  But what makes it significant?

On that day, twenty years ago, I departed the relative safety of my parents house, my life as a college student in New York to some place called Denmark.

Let’s go back a ways, to the year 1997 exactly.  Even writing it now it doesn’t seem so long ago, but of course it is.  The internet was still pretty much a thing you had to go to an office or a library to get.  I had an email address that I seldom used or even checked.  Cell phones were something maybe businessmen had.  I had only seen two cell phones in my entire life at that point.  But that’s history stuff.

That year I was a sophomore in college in Albany, New York.  At the beginning of the college term, I went to the university’s study abroad office to talk to them about going abroad.  The head of the study abroad office was really serious and grilled me extensively about everything to make sure I was serious.  What was I studying?  Where did I want to go?  What were my plans for when I was done with college?  It was all done very officially.

I went to the office and said I wanted to go to England.  My parents and I had visited two years earlier and I had liked it.  Truth be told, it was the only other European country I visited besides Poland.  I just picked it for that reason.

The study abroad advisor had other plans for me or fate intervened.  I don’t know what it was but he steered me towards the university’s program in Denmark.  I was kind of skeptical at first because I hadn’t thought of that as a place I wanted to study but I looked at the brochures and said OK, let’s give this a shot.

I filled out the paperwork, got accepted and off I would go in a few months.  I still remember going to the mailbox at my parents old house to get the mail and receiving an envelope that said I was to live in a place called Albertslund.  Oh Albertslund….

So on the fateful day, August 24 1997, I boarded a plane to Copenhagen from Newark airport.  I had been away at college for a while so I knew separation but not to degree that I was about to experience it.  I remember walking down the sleeve to airplane and feeling like turning around at the last possible moment but I knew I couldn’t.  I had committed to do this and I was going to do it.  Why do I remember the day I left so clearly?  I kept my boarding pass.  See:

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These boarding passes have gone with me to every place I have ever lived since then.  On the flight, I sat next to a Kenyan student from St. Lawrence University.  There were other students from the same program on the plane with me.  I thought by the time I returned home in four months, I would probably know all of them really well.

So we land in Copenhagen, exhausted.  We are taken to Copenhagen University to pick up our bags, just to load those bags onto another bus.

On that bus came my first surprise.  The school had given us a book with the name and picture of every participant in the program.  Looking for my name, I find ANOTHER person whose name is Radziejewski.  Now basically my entire life, all the Radziejewskis I had known I could count on one hand.  Now here was another one — Grzegorz Radziejewski, a rather serious looking fellow from the Warsaw School of Economics who I was sure not to like at all.

So we get to Albertslund, which looks something like this:

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Well, I guess not exactly like that.  It’s more like that is how it exists in my memory.  It did look like this on the mornings when I’d be standing on the train platform ready to go to school, but I’ve given it a glamour it does not have in real life.  It looks more like this:

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This photo (that I did not take) believe it or not confers a glamour onto the place that it does not have in real life.  I know.  The place looks like barracks.

There I was with my giant suitcases greeted by a group of rather unfriendly looking people that were to take us to our barracks, I mean dorm blocks.  None of this particularly boded well at that moment.

I walked into my dorm block, 7 West, or 7V as I would know it and I was greeting by two very friendly students who were speaking a language that sounded like it had been turned inside out.  I was thirsty.  It was the first day.  I was really tired.

I walked by a door that had this image on it.  NO JOKE:

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Yeah.  That is a woman hitting a man with her hair.

Oh and the other thing that struck me.  I sat with the two students and we chatted for a bit.  One brought me a cup of water, while the other one showed me around.  All the while, nobody opened their door.  Nobody came out of their rooms.  Nothing happened. Did anyone actually live in this place?  Where were the other people?

To paraphrase Ayrton Senna, it was way too late to change my mind.

That night we were shown around downtown Albertslund which resembled a concrete outdoor mall.  We were given dinner that night that purported to be pizza but somewhat resembled cardboard with cheese on it.

The next week we were to have orientation.  The program was called Denmark’s International Study Program or DIS.  I came to call this week DISorientation week.

We were taken around to the school’s city campus off the City hall square.  I passed by this beautiful structure on the way to school in the morning:

RŒdhuspladsen

Alas I also did not take that photo, but even then I knew that from that point on whenever I saw this photo, I would think of going by there in the morning everyday on the way to school.

The school itself was in an old merchant’s building and tiny compared to the sprawling university I attended.  There were students in the program from across the United States and from Eastern Europe, including Poland.

During DISorientation week, I finally met the other, very serious Radziejewski, whose name turned out to be Grzegorz Radziejewski.  He did not, despite what I had thought, play the piano and he was not generally serious.  He turned out to be a very nice fellow who initially encouraged me to speak Polish and who turned out to be one of my best friends not just during the program but thereafter for many years.  Because of him, I spoke Polish with a person I wasn’t related to who didn’t criticize me around every turn and just let me talk.  I was so grateful for that.  Years later, the guy tells me that he was just sick of speaking English everyday and that’s why he wanted me to speak Polish!!!!!! But it did turn out to be a very valuable friendship and a valuable person to me.

So school was squared away but then we had the subject of this strange place I had chosen to live in.  Most of my classmates lived with host families.  I had chosen a dorm or kollegium.  Now in an American dorm, you had a cafeteria and shared bathrooms.  In the kollegium, you had a kitchen and a shared TV room that life kinda revolved around.

For the first few weeks I would come home and cry.  I mean I would just ball my eyes out. My parents called me once and I told them I couldn’t understand why I had ended up in this godforsaken place.  I would come home, sit in my room alone and just cry.  I was supposed to be having the time of my life there on my term abroad and I was sitting in my room crying most of the time.

The program had given us booklets on how to survive in the dormitory.  One booklet said that you had to leave your room and speak to the residents.  Just get over your shyness, go over and talk to people.  After yet another day spent crying in my room, I did it.

What I would do is I would go my little fridge in the kitchen and pour myself a glass of orange juice.  I would converse with the people in the kitchen as long as it took to drink the glass of orange juice.  The first day I did this, I walked into the kitchen and I saw two shirtless guys hanging out in the kitchen.  Those two boys then started making animal noises.  Now you had to understand that two years earlier I had been a high school student.  What greeted me was well, kinda astounding. Let’s have a look:

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This is my friend Thomas, still my friend now.  Now honestly when I first met the guy I couldn’t believe he was actually speaking to me.  Let’s just say that this guy did not look like the boys I had met in my backward suburban New York high school.

Thomas seemed to inhabit a more interesting, urbane and cultured world.  Here I was this person who had always been derided as being weird or too smart or too whatever but there was a person who not just appreciated it but also had his own wit and urbane commentary to contribute to it.  As I got to know him as well, I found this deeply vulnerable side to him that made becoming his friend even easier.  I had absolutely no idea that this friendship would endure twenty years.

As the time in Denmark wore on, I found myself socializing more in the dorm and spending more time with the Danes that I did with my classmates.  The conversation with all of them flowed really naturally.  We seemed to make the same jokes and enjoy the same things.

Two months in, another guy who lived there started talking to me.  His name was Allan and like Thomas, we are friends to this day.  Here’s a photo of him:

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Allan proved to be as interesting of a character as Thomas.  His grandfather was Polish and had changed the family name from something full of consonants to something more Danish sounding.  I will never forget what Allan said to me when he decided to start speaking to me — you never seemed to have anything interesting to say.  How very Danish of you my friend!!!!  But I never took it seriously.

Allan’s life had also already been marked by sadness.  Allan said something to me that stuck with me for twenty years.  One night we were just sitting in the dorm sipping some warm beer.  I realized I was the only one there who wasn’t a Dane.  All around me were people speaking a language I could not speak or even understand but I felt completely at home.  I remarked upon this to Allan and he said “you are not one of them.  You are one of us.”  I had never been one of anything in my entire life.

A lot happened during those four months.  At the beginning of my stay, Princess Diana was killed in a car accident in Paris.  This was before smartphones and the internet being everywhere so I didn’t even find out until a day or two after it happened.  Thomas and I watched her funeral on CNN with Swedish subtitles in the dorm common room.  But again, that’s historical.

A lot happened that semester.  Thomas got so sick that he almost died.  I got involved with a guy I met in the dorm who showed me that sometimes you fall for an illusion.  We all got close that semester and then it was time to go home.

Here I had thought it was just going to be a semester away from home.  I would learn some culture, go to school, make some friends and then forget about the whole thing. Instead that time in my life remains in my memory.  It took me a long time to process and its impact is felt on my life every single day.  Denmark isn’t just a place I went for a few months in 1997.  It is a second home for me and a place that I always think of fondly. Moreover, it’s the place where my life really started.  It is the place where I found people who understood and accepted me for me and did not try to change me.

It was just four months but that four months has stretched out to twenty years and hopefully a lifetime.  Copenhagen as it is in my memory.  Beautiful, sepia toned and pure:

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And finally for the first time ever in the history of the blog, I will post a photo of myself on here.  No, it is not a shadow and I am not covering my face with a newspaper or something.  My face is to be revealed up here.

This is a photo Thomas took of me in Denmark in 2004, when we took a motorcycling trip to Dragør, an area in the south of Zealand, the island where Copenhagen is located.  Thomas and I took his motorcycle out there.  I remember this trip very fondly because it was lovely and peaceful.  Here I am wearing my best friend’s jacket looking contemplative:

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I Guess This Is What A Civil War Feels Like

A lot of kids probably grow up hearing about life in a previous generation and how it all used to be.  My version of that was a bit different.  My parents grew up in the shadow of World War II.  It wasn’t a historical event to them or abstract.  My grandparents had lived through it and suffered as a result.  One of my grandmothers went to do forced labor in Germany during World War II.  My other grandmother lost her first husband in a concentration camp.

I often wondered what it was like to live just a normal life, to just be at the start of your life and to face what my grandparents faced.  They were in their early to late 30s when World War II broke out.  That’s the age I’m at now.  What must it have been like to see the rise of Adolf Hitler and to see their countries get occupied.  I can’t even imagine.

Last weekend in Charlottesville, Virginia, the United States saw a flash of what my grandparents experienced.  The images of those men carrying those tiki torches from the Home Depot deeply angered me and made me think that long standing tensions have risen to the surface recently in the United States.  Long simmering tensions.

A group of similarly minded people tried to stage a rally in Boston Common today.  The police department gave them permits but also shut down the train stations around and told the food vendors to stay home.  Oh and an angry mob assembled around Boston Common as counter protest, um 15,000 to be exact.

The rise of these groups troubles me and makes me feel like I’m living in some kind of a civil war.  Is this where this country is going?

Some words spoken during a terrible tragedy came into my mind today.  “This is our *&%#ing city,” a great philosopher named David Ortiz said after the marathon bombing.  Boston may not be perfect, but leave your racism at the door.  Nobody wants it here.

This is our *&%#ing city:

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You Are What You Consume

Warning.  We’re getting philosophical up here.  Skip this is you just come for the photos.  Scroll slowly for the prose, if so desired.

My favorite television show is Mad Men.  On that show, the protagonist Don Draper gets a cigarette account and has to deal with the blow back of the then pioneering research being done into cigarettes that yes, they are harmful.

Of course these days it seems obvious to us that smoke hitting your lungs would cause some kind of microcellular changes, which is turn would cause cancer, which in turn would cause death, eventually.  Packs of cigarettes are labelled but hey, that doesn’t always deter people.

Why am I talking about this?  Well, recently I taught a group of 12 and 13 year old kids and it was like visited another planet entirely.  That is a group of people who do not consume music or media the way I did at their age.  They consume “curated” streams of digital media.

I’m fascinated by teenagers, partly because I hated being one so much.  Here you are smart enough and capable enough to assume adult responsibilities but you are still at home with your parents.  I remember wondering why my parents wouldn’t let me do certain things when I knew full well that I would be fine if I did them.

These days though, the teenagers live on a different planet.  While I was teaching the teenagers, I picked up one of their phones.  There was an entire message stream with just emojis.  Smiley face, pickle, thumbs up.  Yeah, well, eggplant, sad face, poop to you.  It was like teenage hieroglyphics that an oldster like myself isn’t meant to be able to understand, I guess.

Using teenager language or the creation of a insider slang is nothing new.  But these kids are faced with a thing that no other generation of teenagers have ever faced.  On a daily basis, they consume large quantities of digital images.  And this is what worries me a bit about them.  These kids live on their phones.  It is their life line.  I actually witnessed a kid whose phone died and he immediately fell asleep.  His energy source was dead.  Why even keep your eyes open?

Living on the phone means consuming huge amounts of digital images.  We all consume huge amounts of digital images now and the phone has an addictive quality to it.  That flashing notification?  Who liked my photo?  I need to know immediately.  Ten new notifications — OMG, that is really something.

As adults, we scroll through news feeds of endlessly perfect Caribbean vacations, family photos, cooking videos and general digital noise.  We might feel a twinge of jealousy if we see a friend who is on some kind of glamorous looking vacation while we’re trudging home in the rain after we had a huge fight with our boss.  But we’re reasonable about it.  That friend with the vacation?  Well, you find out later on that it wasn’t exactly what it appeared to be online.

What’s worrying is the fact that young people consume these images without much context or thought about what they are consuming or where it came from.  Worse still, their addiction to notifications is magnified.  A flashing notification is juicy hit of dopamine to an adult brain.  The teenage brain is no match to that more potent form of dopamine.

Which brings us back to the beginning.  Cigarettes, the original legal addictive eventually got warning labels and societally shunned.  Will that happen to social media?  Will phones start coming with warning labels that say “that person who just posted that photo of the latte art just lost their job.”  Do the purveyors of digital images have any kind of social responsibility to the general public about their product actually does to people?  Will this become part of the larger national conversation on the shaping of future generations?  I don’t know.  But for right now, people have to start asking questions or we’ll end up like Don Draper in the middle of last season of Mad Men.  And we already have a jingle that we drink our Cokes with.

Pictures.  These were taken when I went to Revere Beach a few days after I had a fight with my boss.  I didn’t get caught in the rain:

I Go To The Berkshires

I was going to write this entry about how Massachusetts continues to amaze me, even after I’ve lived here forever.  Before I got around to actually writing the entry, another idea popped into my head and I decided to go with it.

I decided to make this entry about one of my obsessions — Real Housewives shows.  I already wrote on here about watching the New Jersey Housewives and my unending love for the Beverly Hills housewives, but I have never written about my hometown favorite — the New York City housewives.

Oh man, when that showed premiered, I knew I was going to be obsessed with it.  I grew up in New York, so their ways and their lifestyles were very familiar to me.  Everyone in New York aspires to be part of that high society.  People aspire to be on the edge of high society in New York.  I mean people aspire to be on the edge of the edge of high society over there.

So I started watching the Real Housewives in 2008.  The first season was kind of quiet but from the second season on, it was wall to wall drama.  I can’t even list all of the drama that has gone on during the whole time.  Scary Island, Turtle Time, This is Morocco and not the Plaza hotel.  I read all the recaps.  I actually call her “Countess Luann Crackerjacks.”  Thank you Brian Moylan.

Of course I do actually like and admire a lot of the women.  Carol Radzwill is a real survivor and her book on her husband’s death was beautifully written.  Heather Thomson is a real businesswoman and makes an excellent product.  And hey, I’d even have Sonja Morgan as a kind of crazy friend.

But enough niceties.  This show can be wall to wall drama at times and that was never more in evidence when in the sixth season, the women go to the Berkshires in Massachusetts.  At first Ramona Singer of the Gowanus Singers (thanks again Brian Moylan) refuses to go and says that the Berkshires are for people who can’t afford the Hamptons.  Then she orders an air conditioner (??????) for Heather’s house.  Then she has some kind of PTSD fit.  Then she charters a private jet out of there.  Insane.

I never really understand these shows.  I mean I understand.  Yeah, they cast them for drama but why do they put all of these women together and try to make them be friends?  Friendships form, friendships end.  I have plenty of good friends and I can’t remember the last time I cried over getting a gift bag from one of them.  Anyway, these shows make these women interact with each other in these artificial situations that lead of chaos and conflict.

Anyway, I thought of Ramona and the rest of that traveling circus when I visited the Berkshires recently.  I have to say Ramona Singer you are so wrong.  What an unbelievably beautiful place that is.  So much history.  So many wonderful things.

Take a look Ramona Singer, because I know you read this blog:

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Eggelstoning It Up

I only, shamelessly, admit that I steal ideas and entire photographs from other photographers.  All photographers do it and so do I.

I usually pick though people from the regular canon of photography.  Ansel Adams, Stieglitz, Steichen, maybe a Brassai here and there.  Maybe Weegee if I’m feeling particularly mischievous.

On a recent sojourn through the hamlet of Winthrop, I found new inspiration, I mean person to steal from.  William Eggelston is a photographer who I have recently become familiar with and who I have grown to like.  He photographed kind of this tacky, interesting, colorful version of the American South.  I kind of thought for a long time that I got away from my artistic roots.  I guess I’m finding them again, but as usual, in a different way than I had seen them previously.

Anyway, so here are so photos that are directly influenced by William Eggelston.  Well, I mean I stole his ideas:

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Pre-winter, Winter, Post-winter, Road Reconstruction

One day when I first moved to Boston, I was listening to Car Talk on NPR.  I hadn’t lived in Boston for very long but I already loved what I heard from the Magliozzi brothers on their show.  I could not believe that I spent hours listening to a show where two goof balls told stories about cars.  I am not a car person and I don’t really know much about how they are run, nor do I care.

One joke stuck with me in particular, about Boston’s four seasons, that makes up the title of this entry.

Commonwealth avenue, near my house, is in the road reconstruction phase of the year.  I guess people outside of Massachusetts call this “summer.”  So they are tearing up the Boston University bridge to replace when I assume are 100 year old pieces of track.  Its caused no end of chaos around here and for my part, I’m over on Beacon street taking the wealthier, classier C line to work in the morning.  Am I wealthier and classier?  Probably not.  But the road reconstruction.  Well, it makes for good photos:

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