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too good to be true

maura @ 11:39 am

While I’m still wishing for an easier way to bring more exercise into my life, I’m also still kind of in love with my subway commute (even if it did give me covid late last year, grrr). It’s been years since I traveled into Manhattan most weekdays, maybe even more than 2 decades? And it’s never not interesting to me to watch everything during the commute.

The best thing about the Brooklyn side of the commute is in the morning when it’s easiest to see the subway zoetrope, a series of lighted paintings visible through the subway walls in a way that makes them seem animated. I’m still so amazed that it even exists, and I can usually get the best viewing spot right in front of the doors. And then we’re out of the tunnel and onto the bridge, my favorite part of the trip. Bicycles and scooters on the northern side of the bridge, walkers on the south; fast ferries full of commuters and slow tugs pushing barges in the river. The Brooklyn Bridge and Governors Island and the Statue of Liberty, and, sometimes, the Staten Island ferry (so orange!) if I’m facing south. The Williamsburg Bridge and the whole of Manhattan if I’m facing north.

There’s lots of new-to-me construction in both boroughs, which is fascinating and also kind of sad. On the Brooklyn side many of the tall buildings used to be parking lots, which is not exactly a loss though it’s worrisome to have so much new construction in the flood zone. Recently there’s been some dredging of the inlet with the stone beach at Brooklyn Bridge Park, a backhoe on a barge, so neat. The stained glass watertower sculpture is one of my favorite sights — before my commute I’d not realized that it’s lit from inside at night, so pretty, and it’s lovely in the mornings too.

On the Manhattan side I keep an eye out for the Forward Building in the mornings — boo luxury condos, though seeing that big FORWARD is still a good way to start the day. I’m also pretty grumpy about the giant shiny building (which I’m sure is also condos) right by the river on the site of a former Pathmark, though it’s pretty to watch the reflection of the train in the mirrored windows on sunny days. The edge of the FDR Drive (a highway!) is painted lavender all along the Lower East Side. And that one 6 story brick tenement building just before the trains go back into the tunnel, the back of which is painted turquoise, with a wheatpasted poster: white with black letters reading LOVE ME LOVE ME — it’s been there for decades too, how is it still there? — and then the Cardigans are my earworm for a bit.

Definitely there is more graffiti since the pandemic. I really love graffiti and there’s always plenty to look at from the bridge, too, on both sides. It’s interesting to see the same tags repeated in Brooklyn and Manhattan, and noticing some of them in other parts of Manhattan too. Artists will often use the architectural features of buildings in their work, and my favorite is when a smallish block of building is used for one tag, reminds me of the glyphs in Mayan writing. Some graffiti is more interesting to me for the text than the graphics — on the south side of the train in Manhattan someone’s tagged the top of a building with giant all caps letters that read BAKERS YEAST (lol). But my favorite on the south side is one that says KINDBUD with a heart. Is it a weed tag? Or just a wish that we’ll all be kind to each other, bud? Probably the former, but I like my latter interpretation.

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as it unfolds

maura @ 7:04 pm

It’s been quiet around here because I’ve been busy outside of this blag. In July I started a new job leading the library at the CUNY Graduate Center. I’m enjoying the new role and working with colleagues I’ve long respected, while still missing my former colleagues at City Tech who are also terrific.

I wrapped things up at my old job near the beginning of the summer and then had a whole month between jobs which was really incredible and necessary. We took a trip, I read a bunch of books while snuggling the cat, and I did some walking around and touristing in NYC. Starting the new job in the summer turned out to be a good plan — the relative quiet gave me more time to settle in and to meet with each of my new colleagues. In the 8 years since my last job change I’d sort of forgotten how tiring it is to learn the ins and outs of a new position/institution. So much new info is coming into my brain, though I’m grateful that my CUNY knowledge has made settling in easier.

With the new job also comes a new commute — the GC is in midtown, so I’m back to a subway commute to Manhattan for the first time in 15 (or so) years. I like the subway, and truly I have nothing to complain about: the commute is about 45 minutes at the longest, often more like 35, and my trains go over the Manhattan Bridge which is a view I will never ever get tired of. The only downside is that I’m missing my 90 minutes/day of walking, which I’d gotten used to as a gym-substitute since the pandemic finally convinced me to walk both ways to City Tech.

Working in midtown has been different, too. The excessive heat this summer has kept me inside more than I’d like, but once the weather cools off a bit I’m looking forward to taking a break to walk around and explore the neighborhood, and to eating lunch in the nearish parks. Definitely I need to find ways to make up for my steep decline in walking — some days I’ve walked up the 8 (though really 16, because each floor is double-height) flights of stairs to the dining hall to get some (literal) steps in.

The GC is in the western portion of an old department store that takes up an entire city block, and the library has some beautiful architectural details, including a fancy staircase I get to walk up every morning. Weirdly enough, I have worked in the building before. Roughly 10 million years ago in 1997 I worked for Disney Online, which at that time ran the website out of NYC (and everything else from California). The office was in the same building as the GC, in the office spaces in the middle section of the building (the eastern section was and is still Oxford University Press, and the former home of the Science, Business, and Industry branch of the NY Public Library).

It’s just wild to me to be working in this building again, seems like it’s pulling together so many threads from my work life in archaeology, publishing, the internet, academia, and libraries, and from the 31 years that we’ve lived in NYC. I feel very lucky.

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out there somewhere II

maura @ 4:43 pm

We have been trying to go to the movies more, and to pay attention to the movies more, especially revivals and thematic film series. After Jonathan Demme died a couple of years ago we completely missed the retrospective at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, and I am still very grumpy about that. “Something Wild” and “Married to the Mob” played a huge role in our mental construction of an image of New York City before we moved here, and it’s been ages since we’ve seen them. (Plus the sountracks, swoon.)

Soon after that tragic miss I started paying closer attention to the film listings in the paper and elsewhere, so when BAM screened “After Hours” we *did* catch it (go us!). (That was also 2 years ago, though honestly time is so weird recently that I’d have said it was earlier this year, maybe as long ago as summer last year, though my calendar proves my brain wrong once again.)

“After Hours” is another foundational NYC movie for us, and it held up in lots of ways. The gorgeous empty streets of soho, the east village, and the lower east side late at night, so long ago that there were no fancy buildings anywhere, just the occasional dive bar or punk club. The always amazing Catherine O’Hara and her classic line “it’s not boring.” Remembering how different and sometimes difficult it was to go anywhere to meet anyone before we had pocket computers.

But there are other things that stand out glaringly as kind of awful, as is not uncommon with media from 30+ years ago. We left the movie feeling really bad about how Rosanna Arquette’s character is treated by Griffin Dunne’s character specifically and by the film generally. He picks her up at a diner and goes back to her place, then there are some references to her having been burned in the past which left scars, then he ghosts her when she’s in the bathroom. He comes back later to find that she’s killed herself and, while he does report it, he then goes on with the rest of his night (he’s been trying to get home and encountered innumerable weird obstacles). It’s lazy and misogynist and disappointing to rewatch, which is a bummer.

Redeeming Rosanna Arquette is not the only reason we were glad to see “Desperately Seeking Susan” at BAM last month (really for real last month!), but it was definitely a lovely aspect of the movie. (It was hard to pick just one movie in that series on women directors — part of me really wanted to see “Suburbia” and “Decline of Western Civilization” to really dig into the me-as-a-high-schooler mindset, but it’s hard to see movies on weeknights and to be out multiple nights in close succession.)

It was so so funny to see Madonna as Madonna, really, not acting at all — it was super early in her career, with only her first album out (though the internet tells us that she got super famous in the middle of filming the movie which made for an interesting challenge as shooting wrapped up). Lots of old NYC nostalgia here too — Love Saves the Day, the store where Madonna trades her jacket for the fancy boots — was still open when we moved here, though it’s long since closed now. And wow that Port Authority bathroom scene, I still can’t believe that the NYT article last month didn’t even mention it.

Not that there wasn’t any sexism, even with a woman director. When Rosanna Arquette is being chased by a mobster and ends up falling down on the street, the cops pick her up and of course assume she’s a prostitute. <insert eyerolling emoji here> But she gets to ditch her cheating narcissistic husband and change into excellent new clothes and leave the boring suburbs for the city, a much happier ending for sure.

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maura @ 10:28 am

I spent part of this year’s first summer Friday in Manhattan getting some of my hairs dyed purple (more on that in another post), which I just realized was the latest recent outing to NYC places from my past. I’ve been in NYC for longer than I’ve ever lived anywhere else, and while the Manhattan time was only the first 7 years, it looms large in my brain and personal history construction.

My Manhattany spring has included pizza with the CUNY Pie folks nearish to the location of grad school #1, lunch with two of my most-admired fellow department chairs only a few blocks from our old apartment in Chinatown, dinner just south of Midtown along a walking route I once took home from work, and hair stuff that had me walk by a building where we looked at an apartment when we were first moving here. That last one always makes me laugh: the apartment was on Crosby St. just south of Houston and it was a pretty 4th floor walkup with exposed brick and actually within our price range. But, as NYC newbies we were nervous about the location, which seemed too quiet and dark at night. Of course once we’d been here for a bit we realized how wrong we were — and we only learned much later that we could have been Bowie‘s neighbors!

The nostalgia that has accompanied all of these outings has taken me by surprise, though it probably shouldn’t have. Last week I found myself thinking about maps and augmented reality, layering the routes and memories of the me of 20+ years ago onto the NYC of today. Sitting in that restaurant near Midtown it struck me that our view was only of older buildings, no gleaming glass and metal buildings rising higher than anything else in the neighborhood, and it was easy to feel the past muscling in on the present. But the train home over the Manhattan Bridge brings the present back quickly, downtown Brooklyn awash in construction. The past is still present to me there, too — we used to buy our xmas tree in the space replaced by the huge arena where I attended not one but two graduations this year.

I’m sure it’s probably completely normal to feel like all time is the present when there’s a big life change about to happen. I think I’m looking for ways to fix memories into something like permanence, which of course is impossible. But I think I’m also trying to remember what things used to be like as a way to convince myself that things will be okay after the big changes to come. It’s not totally uncharted territory, just a new layer on the old map.

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i keep my feet on solid ground

maura @ 6:09 pm

What’s the word for feeling melancholy as you experience something because you know you’ll be nostalgic for it when you remember it later? Surely the Germans have a word for that, probably many syllables.

We were in the city about a month ago seeing a movie at the NY International Children’s film Festival and I was strangely gripped by that very feeling. It was a lovely time — we had burgers and beer for dinner in Chelsea before heading to the movie showing at the School of Visual Arts on West 23rd. It was cold and clear as it had been for so much of the winter. We happened to be walking from the restaurant to the theater at that magic time that photographers love, when the light is just so. And it seemed like I could feel everything we’ve ever done in that neighborhood layered one on top of the other: when we used to go to the Boston Market and Krispy Kreme before seeing movies on 23rd St., when we went to Co for CUNYPie and we brought Gus and then had to stop in the New York Public Library branch on 23rd so he could go to the bathroom, when commencement was at the Javits Center and we walked down to have lunch at a Chinese restaurant and ran into a former student who’d been in my class the very first semester it existed, when we saw a movie at the Festival the prior year and there were lots of free snacks at the theater and afterward we went to dinner at the place that the NYC ebola patient later ate at.

We are not moving anytime soon, really we are not. The high school situation is sorted, I’m more settled into my now not-so-new job, and we’re still good with our apartment, neighborhood, etc. But at some point we will leave, I can imagine. Maybe it’ll be when Gus goes to college, maybe later. The thing of having one kid only is that we can always, in theory, move to where he ends up. I kind of can’t imagine ever leaving, I can’t think of anyplace else I’d want to live, but at the same time I think we will, someday. It’s a weird feeling, a strange sense. NYC, I’m already missing you.

At the film festival the movie we saw began with this hilarious short, which I love so much I could watch it forever:

In the Beginning from Arthur Metcalf on Vimeo.

les tags: ,

not just tea at the airport

maura @ 2:21 pm

Fair warning: this post will be extremely boring to most humans. It may perhaps be slightly interesting to folks who are parents of children under the age of 18 and/or live in NYC, but YMMV.

The kid is in 8th grade this year, which means that we as a family are thoroughly immersed in the high school application process. Recently I’ve been surprised at how much less stressful I’m finding this process than I expected, especially based on our middle school application experience. But I also feel like it’s taken up lots of headspace, room that I can’t really afford to allot to it right now. So this post is the HS purge, writing it out to free up those braincycles.

Over the course of I don’t know how long because I wasn’t really paying attention since it didn’t really affect me — maybe 10 years? — the NYC public high schools have transformed from (I think?) mostly zoned, mostly biggish, neighborhood schools into schools that are more or less available for any NYC kid to apply to and range in size from 300 to 5000 students. There are definitely some advantages to this. Some of the schools are truly excellent, some have a specific curricular focus for the non-required courses, and some have pretty small class sizes (20-25 students). On the other hand, applying to a small focused school is essentially asking a 13 yr old to decide what they want to be when they grow up, which for many kids is much much too early. On the third hand, going to a science-focused high school doesn’t mean that you can’t go to an arts-focused college, or the reverse, so lighten up! (I tell myself.)

Applying to public high school in NYC can be complex and labor-intensive. The numbers give you a sense of it: across the 5 boroughs there are 400 high schools, with 700 programs (some schools have several different curricular programs and you apply to the program rather than the school), and each program uses one of 8 (eight!) different admissions processes. The book that I call the Giant Book of High Schools that got sent home at the end of last year is 3″ thick:


Like with middle schools, students and parents are encouraged to go to the open house or tour for each school they’re interested in. For us that is shaping up to be 9 schools, maybe 10. We are not considering anything that’s more than a 45-ish minute commute, which keeps us in Brooklyn and Manhattan.

The biggest division is what are called the specialized high schools — there are 8 of them spread throughout the city, and admission is via one standardized test called the SHSAT. High-stakes testing is stinky, though I admit it makes the process more straightforward. Basically any kid who wants to go to a specialized school takes the test, which is held on one weekend in the fall, chooses which of the 8 schools they’re willing to go to and lists them on the test form. The kid with the highest score gets matched with the school she ranked #1, the kid with the second highest score with her #1 choice, and so on down the list until all of the seats in each of the 8 schools are filled. We’re touring 2 of these schools, and have also signed the kid up for the test prep afterschool course at his middle school. I’m not a big fan of test prep, but a combination of factors wore me down: most kids seem to take it, the SHSAT is a strange, one-off test that’s not like any tests the kids have taken before or will take again, and the course (which is really just doing practice tests with a teacher) seems like it’ll reduce anxiety about the process.

The rest (and vast majority) of the schools are the “unspecialized” schools, and they use any one of the remaining 7 admissions methods. Some of them have geographic preferences, and will take kids in the school’s neighborhood or borough first. Some have grade or standardized test score requirements. Some require their own test, or an interview, or a portfolio, or an essay, or a letter of recommendation from a teacher. The schools with performing arts programs often require an audition (that’s not for us). Whatever the admissions method, the end result is the same: there’s a form that comes home from middle school that we fill out by ranking *all* of the schools he’d be willing to go to, then we send the form back in and the DOE feeds it all into a special machine which spits out the high school matches. There are 12 slots on the form, and it’s recommended that you list no less than 6 schools because while there is a round 2, it’s much more challenging to get into schools during round 2 as most of the schools have already filled their seats.

We’re looking at 8 unspecialized schools. Three are easy: take the tour, rank the school on the form (because the kid meets their admissions requirements, which are published in the Giant Book, and the school can look at the DOE system to see his grades and test scores). Two each require you to bring your 7th grade report card and take a specific test for just that school, and one of those also requires an interview (if your test score is high enough). One requires an “admissions activity” — we don’t know what it entails because it isn’t live on the school’s website yet. One requires a short essay as well as a copy of your 7th grade report card. One requires a portfolio of work from 7th grade and an interview. (Is that all 8? I think so.)

I fully acknowledge the advantage that our privilege affords us in this process. We are fortunate enough to have the time and energy to devote to researching schools, booking tours and tests (some of which fill up almost as soon as they’re listed on the schools’ websites), paying for a SHSAT prep course, and schlepping around to all of this stuff, most of which happens between 8am and 5pm on weekdays. It’s true that there are many schools that don’t require anything other than listing the school as one of the 12 schools on the form, provided that your child meets the grade/test score requirements. But the system definitely privileges those families with both the resources to spend on the admissions process as well as those with children in high-performing elementary and middle schools (which, of course, is another privilege).

While I can’t say I’m in love with this system, it’s the system we have. For us we’re using a google doc and calendar to keep track of things, and since my brain likes learning about and keeping track of minutia I’ll admit to a certain amount of satisfaction that we have gotten everything scheduled for the fall. But I will still be happy when it’s all over. And wow, that’s over 1,100 words — hope that works to clear out my brain!

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maura @ 4:20 pm

When the kid is away, the parents will play. Or eat food that the kid doesn’t like, anyway, and watch old person movies and go shopping for new glasses and other boring, grownup stuff.

In this case the kid was away for a full week, and the adults saw Snowpiercer,* and bought glasses and fancy shoes, and picniced at the gardens, and watched the original Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory** on a humongous outdoor screen.

* Which was good, though perhaps we should have seen it sooner and/or not read so many extremely positive reviews, because it didn’t quite live up to the hype.***

** Okay, the kid would have liked that last one, I’ll admit.

*** Though I was proud of us that we held firm on not letting the kid see it, because yes, very violent!

We also ate food, so much amazing food. Handpulled Chinese noodles with spicy sour pork in the East Village; tuna, caper, and tapenade sandwiches at the gardens; Indian food in Murray Hill including lemon rice, this amazing cubed pumpkin and garlic dish, curried goat, and lentil donut with various saucy accompaniments; and finally an avocado, black bean, and queso fresco torta with cafe con leche at Cafe Habana, just down the block from our very first apartment ever in NYC.

It was delicious, all of it. But also strangely tiring being out and about doing leisurish things three evenings and one daytime within a seven-day timespan.

SO glad the kid’s back now and we can hide behind him as a reason to stay in and eat sparely and go to bed by 11.

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maura @ 4:39 pm

We had a hurricane, you may have heard. We are very, very lucky here at chez mauraweb: located at one of the higher elevations of the borough, there was no flooding, and we didn’t have more than a few lights flicker last night during the worst of the wind. A quick walk around the neighborhood today to dispel some of the cabin fever revealed that there are a bunch of trees down, but again, nothing too bad, probably about the same as the last hurricane or the tornado. Half of the plywood at the abandoned construction site across the street blew over, revealing the garbage I’d suspected was piling up behind it. Once things settle down I am definitely calling 311 on its ass.

But the rest of the city was not so lucky. Subway (and other) tunnels flooded and the waterfront edges as well. Much of Lower Manhattan and large portions of the suburbs without power. Hospital evacuations, power station explosions, the Rockaways burning. It’s kind of intense. School’s been canceled again for tomorrow, my work too. Who knows how long it will be until the subways run normally again, though the governor supposedly promised that some bus service will be back this evening. This is a huge huge deal for a place that runs on public transportation, that relies on being able to get people between 5 boroughs and 3+ states for work and school and everything else.

We got most of our storm prep done on Saturday so I spent much of the storm alternately gorging on twitter and news websites and trying to ignore it all and not be too freaked out. The cats were fine, acted as if nothing weird was going on (if a bit confused to find water in the bathtubs) and wasn’t it great that ALL THA HUMANZ were there ALL THA TIMEZ?! That made me feel better, too — animals are supposed to be much more sensitive to weather stuff than we are, right? We went to our front of the building neighbors’ apartment for potluck dinner last night and their hamster was sleeping right through it, I kid you not.

Now I’m in that post-storm stage of relieved and cabin fevery and under-exercised and (guiltily) bored and annoyed with myself that I’m not doing more with this found time. But it’s crypto-time, in some ways — I still can’t stop checking the news every hour or so, we wasted 1 hr waiting for the mayor to speak this morning (reported to be at 10 but really at 11). I’ve done some book work and checked my work email. I read a whole book on Saturday and Sunday (calm down, it was a YA book). The dishes and laundry are done. Gus has played more videogames than I thought possible, since we lifted all screen time limitations during the storm, and has a pal over right now. Jonathan is grading. And I am still…antsy.

les tags: ,

stars made for us tonight

maura @ 10:01 pm

We’ve been here for 21 years now and I still lurve NYC. I love the non-drivingness, the lotsa different peopleness, the variety of places and spaces, the never a lack of things to do. I know it’s reductive and not totally true — the income inequality in NYC is pretty severe, actually — but I feel like most of the time the city lives up to my ideal of a place where no one kind of person is the default, where the sexism and racism of the world is less prevalent, and where everyone remembers that the one bright spot on Sept. 11th was how much we all helped each other and looked out for each other, and we all try to remember to do that every day.

In Brooklyn specifically I love living only a few blocks from an awesome library, a huge park, gorgeous botanic gardens, a lovely museum, and lots of good public transit options. We have our hippie food coop for good food (and few choices, which becomes evermore important to me the older I get because reading labels is boring + time-consuming). We can walk to school and work. We have a house that is big enough but not too big. Yeah, there are things I wish we had — a little bit of our very own outdoor space, a parking space, less dust, self-cleaning bathrooms — but the stuff in the cons column doesn’t even come close to the list in the pros column.

Except. Lately I’ve been thinking that if anything drives me from NYC it’s going to be this godamned global warming. Because I am tired of being hot in my office, hot in the subway, hot everywhere. Why is it still 70 degrees on October 20th? Will it ever snow again? My wool sweaters are so sad. Also there’s the potential flooding. Blame the post-apocalyptic YA novels, but the whole have-to-cross-at-least-2-bridges-to-get-to-a-non-island thing is starting to nag at my brain a bit. And also there are tunnels, for cars and subway trains, and those could flood. Will flood!

Honestly, it’s enough to have me thinking about Canada. Or Iceland, where it’s a balmy 30 degrees right now. Brisk!

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street of the love of days

maura @ 5:18 pm

I’m on the way home from a conference right now which means that I’ve probably eaten far too many sandwiches over the past few days. I love sandwiches, I really do, and toast with butter and pretty much anything else bready.

When we first moved to New York we lived in Little Italy, what I guess the realtors now call Nolita. The apartment was kind of weird (2 bedrooms each had 1 glass wall!) but the neighborhood was fantastic: funky shops and buildings and really walkable and not too far from where we needed to be (and very near a good selection of subways too).

I don’t know why I started thinking about this the other day, but I had the most bizarre nostalgia flashback about the neighborhood. There was an Italian bakery on the next block south of our apartment. Not a fancy bakery but the working kind — they baked kaiser rolls and hoagie sub sandwich rolls and those sorts of things.

Now it feels like a dream, because how could it possibly be real? But sometimes we would be out late, too late, being our just-out-of-college selves at a concert or bar or whatever. The bakery would be baking, and the smell was amazing, you could smell it all the way up the block. And if we walked down to the bakery they’d sell us a warm roll fresh out of the oven for something ridiculous like a quarter.

Just so you know, a freshly-baked roll is about the most delicious thing you can eat at 2 or 3am.

Edited on 1/27/12 to add: I wasn’t lying to myself after all! Jonathan found a photo of the bakery on the interwebz. Except that he remembers it as loaves of bread rather than individual rolls.

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