Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Jersey faces, Jersey places

of workboots on my roof --
It's just Phil
trimming a tree


Well dug circa 1763 in yard of carriage house where I live.
The main house, a Dutch colonial, was built in 1763 and was occupied by the British during Washington's retreat from Fort Lee. The well is no longer used, but the quality of the water is said to be nearly pristine.

Monday, October 29, 2007

Pilgrim's progress

I want to elaborate on something I wrote about in my last post.

Walking lately has become excruciating, even at a slow pace, even on level ground.
My joints have given me varying degrees of trouble over the course of my fight against parathyroid cancer. And my knees historically have been a source of bother even before that diagnosis in 2001-02. I quickly became intimately acquainted with my knees when I took up karate in 1993, and we've had a love-hate relationship ever since as karate has become an integral part of my life. (And yes, I still practice, but very carefully and gingerly, sort of how our grandfathers would.)

My neck, elbows, hips and knees have at times been painful, and often just annoying, over the last several years. But the deterioration of my knees has come about suddenly, and scarily so. The base of my neck and back of my head rank a close second, especially when I wake up in the morning. My hip pain comes and goes, like the periodic (and often unwelcome) visits of an antagonist from one's past.

This rather sudden and hopefully temporary impediment to mobility is a great blow to me, seeing as how my photography -- a passion that burns within me -- depends on getting around from place to place, in no particular order, sometimes hurriedly, sometimes leisurely.

Being hobbled also is ironic given the importance I place on physical pilgrimage, whether it's circumambulating a Japanese island as part of a 1,300-year-old Buddhist ritual or walking the length and breadth of Manhattan and down into Brooklyn (haven't been able to do that in many, many months) or just going to the toilet to take a piss.

What I'm getting at is, LIFE itself is the pilgrimage and all of the activities on that path, from the sublime to the mundane, are part of the package deal. I place lots of emphasis on the physical aspects of pilgrimage (I like to think of my photographs as postcards from the path), and walking the walk has become increasingly difficult. Maybe I need to change my focus, photographically and spiritually.

So ...

My doctors suggest a few options, beginning with X-rays to see if arthritis is the culprit (and it is a likely one, given the bone loss that's part of the range of things parathyroid cancer can do). I'll also be tested for the uric acid content in my system because my illness also can inflict gout -- not in the big toe, which it targets in otherwise healthy people, but in the joints of those with this particular cancer.

There are medications that can alleviate my symptoms once I find out just what is behind them. That's quite heartening, even though I'm not really thrilled about having even more drugs to deal with than I already do, along with their potential side effects.

Plus, I need a new bed. I've been sleeping on a futon that leaves me feeling like a science fair project gone awry when I wake up in the morning. It's destroying my lower back, which in turn could affect other parts of my body. After all, the leg bone's connected to the thigh bone ...

"Every night I still ask the Lord, 'Why?' and havent heard a decent answer yet."
--Jack Kerouac,
"Desolation Angels"

Idle camera

No photos from the weekend ... ah, well.

Saturday was a washout (we needed the rain).
Sunday, I got a late start getting into Manhattan, and once there my knees were so painful that trying to make up for lost time by covering as much ground as possible was just out of the question.
Picture Fred Sanford from "Sanford and Son" with a heavy camera bag slung across his shoulder trying to cross a busy street. Yes, my "arthuritis" got the better of me.
Hurt like hell, to tell the truth.

There was an annual Halloween dog costume contest Sunday at the dog runs at Tompkins Square Park. The crowds were large, the energy level overbearing. I gave it a miss. Besides, I covered it last year in a photo essay for a Lower East Side magazine, and once was enough.
Some people I know could use a short, sturdy leash ...

But there was one interesting encounter Sunday, which will be filed in my "It's a Small World" folder. I was walking along Seventh Street between Avenues C and D in the East Village when the facade of a pre-1900 synagogue-turned-apartment house caught my eye. There was a fellow sitting on the top step of the sandstone staircase leading up to the front door, smoking a cigarette.
"You live here?" I asked.
"Uh, yeah," he answered warily.
"I was just wondering if any of the original architectural details are preserved on the inside of the building."
He explained that a roof leak ruined the building's interior, and that when it was renovated and converted into apartments, any vestiges of its former incarnation were removed.

I don't remember how, but eventually the conversation turned to our livelihoods and I explained that I work for a daily newspaper in Jersey.
My new friend said he has a good friend who also works for a Jersey paper.
I asked the name of this fellow journalist.
Turns out that we work for the same paper and are friendly with each other.
These two guys went to college together, and the person I had just met seemingly at random was a groomsman at my colleague's wedding.

Yeah, it's a small world, all right.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Giving thanks for inspiration: Gary Snyder

Gary Snyder,
at Columbia University

I came face to face with Gary Snyder, one of my icons, at a poetry reading Wednesday night at Columbia University. The Pulitzer Prize winner spoke about the influence of Japanese poetics on his work and read selections from his early and more recent poetry to illustrate this influence. It was wonderful to hear his measured cadence reading poems I had read many times before but which now came to life.

Snyder was a friend of Jack Kerouac, who based the autobiographical novel "The Dharma Bums" on his relationship with Snyder, portrayed as protagonist Japhy Ryder in the book.

Reading "The Dharma Bums" and Snyder's poetry years ago stoked my growing interest in Japan and figured big in my decision to move there in the mid-1990s.

After Wednesday's reading and after I took my photographs of Snyder, I shook his hand and thanked him for his wonderful poetry. I told him how his work inspired my own journey across the Pacific, which seemed to please him. "And how'd it go?" he asked. "It changed my life," I told him. "I went there expecting to learn lots about Japan, which I did. But I wound up learning more about myself." He smiled.

There was a reception going on in the room behind where he spoke. I saw him sitting at one of the tables, patiently signing the books and photos that people were placing in front of him. Earlier, I saw a star-struck but earnest fellow give him a manila envelope with his poetry for Snyder to critique. Snyder pressed it to his forehead and thanked the man with a gassho, a Buddhist bow with palms pressed together.

I wanted to go over and chat some more with Snyder, who seemed absorbed in thought even in the midst of this throng of admirers. And then I thought, what more did I really have to say? What could I tell him that he hasn't heard 10,000 times before from fans and friends over the decades.

I had expressed my gratitude to him. What higher compliment could I pay than to acknowledge his influence on my life?

I decided to let it be.

Just to let it be.

Monday, October 22, 2007


Age and illness are the cause of such joint pain, especially in my knees and hips, that practicing karate is becoming increasingly painful and difficult, at least from the hips down.

But I can still sit easily and comfortably in the full lotus posture for extended periods of zazen.

Karate is something I actively pursue, something I regard as food for my spirit. Yet my pursuit is encountering higher and higher hurdles.

Zazen is something I used to do regularly. My practice faded long ago, but its physical underpinnings are as good as new.

I pursue the one and find my body mired in the mud, so to speak.
I've let the other fade from my life, but could return to its physical posture as easily as slipping into an old flannel shirt.

I think I'm beginning to see the light -- insofar as there is light to be seen.


Teaneck, N.J.

Thursday, October 11, 2007


Court Street Bridge over the Hackensack River
(built 1908)

Hackensack, N.J.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Making movies

It was 1947, the year Air Force test pilot Chuck Yeager broke the sound barrier in a rocket plane.
My mom and dad, married three years earlier, were living in the newly constructed Stuyvesant Town housing complex on Manhattan's East Side, just blocks from where he had been born. My dad had recently finished his Stateside service in the Army during World War II in military intelligence, covert domestic operations and interrogation of German prisoners of war.
He and my mom were ready to enjoy the fruits of postwar prosperity.

My dad, circa 1942

My eldest sister was a year old, and my dad wanted to create a record of her childhood. So he bought a palm-size Filmo Sportster 8mm movie camera made by Bell & Howell.
That little Filmo went on to chronicle in shaky home movies the childhoods of my brother, born in 1950, my older sister, born in 1952, and me, born in 1962.

It also preserved my mom's parents, now both deceased, on celluloid, and also my dad's mother, whose husband had died before the Filmo could be brought to bear on him. I know my maternal grandfather, who died five years before I was born, only through the fleeting images of him captured by the Filmo and through the stories my mom and siblings tell of him.

My dad's mother died when I was 4. She was senile and playing with a Raggedy Ann doll in her nursing home bed in the only vivid memory I have of her. But in the movies created by the Filmo, she is as vibrant and full of spice as she is in the many stories I have heard about her.

Magazine ads for the Filmo Sportster, circa 1947

The last time the camera was used must have been in 1963 or '64, trying to capture me whirling like a little dervish across the basement floor of our house on Long Island, where my parents moved to enjoy the blessings of suburbia.
I still vaguely recall my dad filming me, camera in one hand and set of small movie floodlights in the other, trying to keep the lights trained on me so that I wouldn't fade into the shadows.
I could move pretty fast in those days.

My dad's Filmo Sportster

On Tuesday, I drove out to Long Island to visit my mom, who still lives in the house in which her children were raised.
I was rooting around in that same basement, trodding on the same linoleum floor over which I scooted as my dad filmed.
In a closet, I found the Filmo, still in its original box with instruction booklet, warranty card, film guide and pack of lens-cleaning tissue. It had somehow survived the rough-and-tumble years during which I used it as a toy, pretending to make movies like my dad.
Its leather case was still supple, its gray pebble-finish metal body still unscratched and nearly brand-new.
And it still worked, its motor emitting a soft whir as the shutter button was pushed.

So many gossamer memories almost transparent with age are trapped inside that old camera.

Monday, October 08, 2007

Animal instinct

Sculpture by Kate Clark

Kate's work is on display at a temporary space at 169 Ave. C at 10th Street in the East Village hosted by the arts organization Chashama.

Check it out!

Saturday, October 06, 2007


I'm very pleased to announce that I have been invited to become a member 0f the well-respected Soho Photo Gallery in Manhattan's TriBeCa section following a review of my portfolio.

It's really an honor for me to join the ranks of this group. It boasts some truly great photographers from whom I can learn much. I sure hope they don't mind lots of questions.

I feel like a kid in a candy store ...

Wisdom and courage

Queen Mother Dr. Delois Blakely,
Community Mayor of Harlem
Taken in TriBeCa, Manhattan

In addition to Queen Mother Blakely's role as a mentor and community leader in Harlem, this wonderful woman also served as queen mother of the naming ceremony at the African Burial Ground in Lower Manhattan, a national landmark and treasure discovered in 1991 during the construction of an office building. This land has since yielded thousands of remains of slaves and freed men and women of color and is a direct link to Manhattan's role as a slave center in the 18th and 19th centuries.

Those who forget history are doomed to repeat it ...

Saturday dawn on the Hackensack River (another view)

Bogota, N.J.

Saturday dawn on the Hackensack River

Bogota, N.J.

Monday, October 01, 2007

The world just got smaller

On occasion, the blogosphere and the real world intersect in wonderful and unexpected ways. For some time, Ted Taylor and I have visited each other's blogs and have kept up an e-mail correspondence. Ted makes his home in Kyoto, Japan, with his fiancee. He has lived in Japan for more than a dozen years. He teaches yoga and English and also does translations.

This world traveler, cut from the same cloth as Gary Snyder, recently wrote to tell me that he would be returning Stateside to visit family out West and in Vermont. Part of his itinerary would include a stop of a couple days in Manhattan, where he was born (though he grew up mostly in New Mexico) . He suggested a get-together, to which I happily agreed.

We spent Saturday and Sunday traipsing through the East Village and Greenwich Village, revisiting places that Ted hadn't seen in years and exploring new ones that may inspire future sojourns in the city.

We met my friend Jim "Mosaic Man" Power, who asked Ted to contribute to an artwork-in-progress on a light standard at Astor Place. Ted cemented a Japanese 1-yen coin into the mosaic. This most insignificant piece of small change -- worth just a fraction of a cent -- has bought Ted a permanent place in the East Village landscape. Hopefully, in years to come it'll serve as a beacon for Ted's further forays into Manhattan.

The rent has been paid.

Ted Taylor

Ted adding to Jim Power's artwork.

Ted's contribution: A Japanese 1-yen coin

Not Duke Ellington, but close

East Village

The elegant John Rainbow, bass baritone extraordinaire, is a throwback to the 1940s in dress, manner and gentility.

Tonight (Monday) at 7 p.m. he'll sing the Duke Ellington song "Come Sunday" in a memorial to Mr. Ellington's nephew Michael James, who recently passed away. The service is at St. Peter's Church, East 54th Street and Lexington Avenue in Manhattan.

Snack time

East Village