That Summer Feeling

Who went on summer vacation this year? This blog did, that’s who.  I did.

Not that it was a vacation exactly. I was packing up my house in Brooklyn and moving into an old farmhouse in Ulster County, New York. All the while holding down a job managing a restaurant in the city while I look around up here.

The hardest part was packing up the house, not the physical work – though that adds up too: It’s emotionally taxing to sort through old belongings, especially when one of your parents has died in the years you lived in that old place. And, when your closets are full of artifacts from unfinished projects and notions. The antique lamp you were going to get rewired one day. The fixtures that would have made a mind-blowing sculpture.

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“When the smell of the lawn makes you flop down on it…”

Not that we’ve moved to a goat farm hours from the nearest cell phone tower: We still need paying jobs, after all, and our friends who have really gone for it in that sense report feeling a longing for human contact after being so used to it. We consider this more of an intermediate step, but it is a hundred and thirty year old house on a former dairy farm.

Near a creek bed, with sate forests nearby, it’s wetter than the city. Dishes sit on the dish rack and don’t dry. This morning near the equinox I took a stroll around the garden in my bare feet and felt the cold in my arches.

I can tell you already that natural beauty has the capacity to inspire insipid writing. Perfect sunrises come to represent new beginnings. Birds taking flight represent steps toward freedom.

On the other hand, you think more clearly with fewer things in front of you. I’m already writing with more detachment and humor about that most elusive and chaotic well of subject matter, my own memory. No wonder it was so emotional. I was packing up a young man’s house and unpacking a middle-aged person’s house.

Throughout the process my wife and I started listening to I, Jonathan the Jonathan Richman album that we believe we’ve listened to more times in 2018 than anyone else. The songs that made us tune in were the catchy, toe-tapping numbers like “I Was Dancing in a Lesbian Bar.” The song that grabbed me hardest and longest, though, was “That Summer Feeling.”

“Do you long for her, or for the way you were?”

More soon, friends.

Books From the Get-Rid-Of Box

Some books can move you to tears just by packing them in boxes.

I know, because we’re starting to pack our Brooklyn apartment to move to a farmhouse up the Hudson valley by the end of summer: something I once found unimaginable, but now I can hardly wait. It feels like we’re on a well-worn path, but well-worn for a good reason.

One thing I look forward to is more time to read, and packing books after you’ve lived someplace a while (eight years at this place), I find emotional.

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Among the books I’m keeping.

It’s something that moving forces you to do: separate them between the books you haven’t read yet but still aspire to, books you’ve read and want to keep so you can re-read them or give them to just the right person, and books you’ve given up on reading – and now you’re facing it, it’s time to get rid of them.

It’s emotional for me because that stack of books I’m ready to say “I’ll never read that” about, that is a measure of the distance between the reader I once thought I was – or the reader friends thought I was – and the reader I actually am. As I age I have less patience for any bullshit in this regard, and packing books this week was a big step in the direction of reality.

I suppose I’m simply becoming more like me. I’ve always been a lot more open to getting hooked into a long history book than a long novel. Anna Karenina was just never going to happen. The Power Broker, which is now finally in the get-rid-of box, to go back to the great used book store shelf I found it on, lasted a whole delicious summer.

In the years after reading The Power Broker, in fact, I became that somewhat familiar, annoying guy who could never help himself from pointing out how Robert Moses had changed whatever New York City landscape I was standing in. I guess I kept devoting two inches of shelf space to it in case I ever needed to refresh my memory about a legal fight about a bridge in the 1950s – or I enjoyed the reminder that I was a member of that club of Power Broker spokespeople. And now I’m letting that membership lapse.

Having said that, I’m also choosey about what I read for one simple reason. I’m slow! Even with history books, I can’t just plow through one for the hell of it, it has to be something I care about. And when a book was given to me as a personal gift, this conflicts with my natural agreeability.

So if I have a conversation with my friend Kevin about how much I enjoyed a trip I once took to Tennessee, and he tells me about a novel he loved that’s set in Tennessee, and then gives me his used copy, and I say “Thanks,” then part of me feels I owe it to him to read that book. Even though I never asked for it, and even though I’d specifically told him I only read a novel or two per year. A part of me genuinely did want to read it at one time – the reader I once thought I was, that is – and part of me has long been ready to embrace the future. And so it sat there, until the purge came.

In this sense, letting go of a book can be like letting go of a trumpet you haven’t played for years, or a sewing machine or a set of golf clubs. It feels right, not just to have made a definite decision, but to be released from a misconception about oneself.

So, with apologies to all the historians and novelists I’ll never commune with, farewell to your masterpieces. If you ever drive past our house, I’ll be the guy in the garden with a book of poems in his breast pocket. No hard feelings.

Catalpas and Princesses

“Do you know how, once you learn something you start seeing it everywhere?”

No joke, my friend in Kingston, New York said this to me as I was snapping a photo from her roof, of a tree I kept seeing all day, the catalpa, which is plentiful in that part of the Hudson valley.

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A catalpa tree in bloom, Rosendale, NY.

From a distance catalpas have the same pale green and fifty feet height of other trees, but as you get closer you realize the leaves are giant, heart-shaped and up to a foot long. Stan Tekiela’s Trees of New York Field Guide says the catalpa, or catawba, is native to the lower Mississippi valley but took to New York when it was planted here for decoration.

Sometimes called the Cigar Tree or Indian bean tree, it’s distinct for the long pods it grows later in summer, like enormous string beans. It makes sense that a catalpa would blossom a month or so later than oaks and maples, since it’s used to Alabama or Mississippi, where summer comes about a month earlier than here. And since this is the week they’re in bloom here, you can see in plain view how many there are.

Catalpas look a lot like those of another tree called the Paulownia or princess tree, except the princess tree’s fruit isn’t a bean-like pod, but clusters of wooded pods that look like almonds. A native of Asia, guides sometimes call princess trees “invasive,” since they grow tenaciously in urban places.

Like the new discipline of permaculture, and like the poet Stephen Dunn, I hear the phrase “invasive species” with caution. “Bad plants? Nature would say, Careful now, watch your language, let’s just see what survives,” Dunn writes.

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A princess tree in an auto body shop: “Foreign & Dometic.”

Princess trees were brought from Asia because they grow fast and look pretty, and it’s true they’re invading Gowanus, the neighborhood of Brooklyn where I work. Famous for the polluted canal that sits in its midst, Gowanus is now a dining and bar crawl destination, but still a good place to get a flat tire fixed.

This winter I could see clusters of princess trees’ fruit while the branches were bare. This month I got to see them bloom: The Royal Horticultural Society says another name for them is foxglove trees, since their blossoms look like the flower. Now the flowers are almost gone and the fruit regenerating.

Is the catalpa’s “invasion” less of an affront to our Yankee ecosystem since it came from Memphis, while the princess upsets our order since it came all the way from central China?

Don’t know, too late, we’re all New Yorkers now.