Saturday, August 22, 2009

Ramble, ramble, I empathize with clouds...

On Friday afternoon, I went to see the High Line that everybody is talking so much about these days. It really did live up to the hype: I felt calm, happy, reflective while walking through it, which is the precise combination of feelings I expect all parks to evoke. Presumably, the gardens are carefully manicured, but they are designed to look wild and overgrown. It makes the whole floral element of the High Line the equivalent of a hipster's haircut. And whether you like the brain underneath the haircut or not, it's neat to look at something very meticulously made to appear completely unfettered and out of control. It's like humans going, "Guess what, Nature! We can make this too!" and Nature obligingly raises its eyebrows in approval, allowing us our fun, while marveling at the fact that we have managed to miss the point again. That's why we call it Mother.

The High Line is also good for reminding its visitors that they are in New York City, a wonderful thing that is sadly increasingly lost on me. I've been living here for three years now EXACTLY (I just realized this right now! My immigration documents have "August 22nd, 2006" stamped on 'em). I was hit with such an intense desire to move here in my last year of university that I would have constant dreams about it, waking up severely disappointed to find myself on a futon in East Van. By the way, Vancouver, I now miss you intensely, if that is any consolation for the previous sentence.

Predictably, I have not spent every moment of the last three years aware that I am in the city of my dreams. The first year, yes, I think I was actually conscious of it more often than not. I was pretty bamboozled. I was in total exploration-discovery-adventure mode. Every eccentricity this place produced was delightful. You don't need to have lived here or ever visited to know that that's a lot of eccentricities to be delighted by. I was delighted probably at a rate of 20-30 eccentricities a day.

By the second year, I had already re-calibrated everything (not a testament to my adaptation skills, just a testament to New York being a kind of "get on with it" place to live). I remember coming back from a trip to Vancouver on the 1-year anniversary of having moved, and flying over all the twinkling lights and shiny, dark water and thinking "hello, home". By that point, my circle of friends had gone through the necessary explosion that occurs after moving to a new place, where you are interested in everyone and everything and are generally pretty socially indiscriminate, but it had also already gone through the corresponding contraction, honing in on the people with the same qualities my friends have always had. Curiosity, kindness, a weird mix of competitiveness and supportiveness: I think that might actually be all I look for in a person. These traits have a bunch of stuff bundled into them: curiosity, in my humble opinion, is the most overlooked yet significant indicator of wit and intelligence; being kind betrays a rare ability to properly empathize (which I admit I don't do well always, or even often); a quiet rivalry among friends is what says, "you challenge and inspire me and I respect you for it, but I am confident that I can also challenge and inspire you, and earn your respect back". I hope this isn't totally self-indulgent: I know about the only thing of the three I can say I am all the time is curious. As admitted and as I will admit again, I have been known to let empathy slide when I want to do something selfish that I know might hurt somebody else. I always thought I was really good at the competitive/supportive thing, until last year when I began spending time with a dude with whom I felt I could not compete, right when my confidence was at a trough in the grid. It led me to do and say weird stuff; looking back on specific examples gives me this creepy feeling that I was periodically possessed with gremlin-spirits (retrospectively taking responsibility for my actions = creepier than random gremlin-spirit possession).

So what I think I'm saying is that I'm lucky that people with those traits, whatever the level of functioning they are at in each person, are everywhere, and though they take a while to root out (truffles in Provence; diamonds in Nunavut), they are worth the wait. My friends now are all people who are like, "here's some neat stuff I am doing, what's that neat stuff you are doing? Hey, why don't we do some neat stuff together?", which is everything I could want and more, and I'm really grateful.

Also, fart jokes. They all tell fart jokes; more essential than anything mentioned above. Farts are funny.

Now, at the end of my third year here, I am so settled and comfortable that I very rarely think, "hold up: I live in New York". Maybe when people visit me, but barely ever beyond that. Just last night, I was walking through Union Square and there were these two people dressed like cavemen, sweatily dancing to some guys playing hand drums while a crowd of about thirty people watched, and it wasn't until I was walking past 3rd Avenue that I was like, "that was kind of weird". I fail to notice the eccentricities now. I'm in a comfort zone. It's not bad, but I will admit there is something sad about it.

The High Line is about two stories up. The New York you would expect to see from this angle, elevated by a pretty miniscule amount, should really be about the same as the street-view New York. But it actually looks dramatically different. There's so much new stuff to look at; the old-timey signs on the sides of brick buildings are more evident, you can see the layout of the Meatpacking District's cobbled streets, the Hudson flows by, all sparkles and murk. One of the arches over the High Line is designed to perfectly frame the Statue of Liberty, in a way that makes it look static, almost like it's only a picture of a long forgotten relic. It's kind of intimidating to realize that all you need to do to fall back in love with New York's volatility is look at it from a slightly different angle. And I mean, extremely slightly, if that is not too much of an adverb contradiction.

Speaking of extreme slightness, how about some calculus talk? The next book I'm reviewing is The Calculus of Friendship by Steven Strogatz; I read the bulk of it that afternoon on one of the wooden patio chairs set up along the line. It's about Strogatz's 30 years of correspondence with his high school calculus teacher, and I'll admit, it made me cry. I'm not made of stone. I took a break only to acknowledge that a storm was sweeping towards Manhattan from the southwest, and I was in the exact position to watch it ominously roll in. It looked a little like the special effects of Independence Day, and I half-expected a disc-shaped spaceship to emerge from the swirling cumulus. I mean, I didn't actually go halfway in expecting it; that'd be crazy and would mean Bill Pullman was President. But I thought about it enough that I kind of freaked myself out, because I was in Manhattan, an island I've seen obliterated by aliens in movies many times and the ol' imagination can leak into other parts of my brain sometimes, if I let it.

Anyway, calculus was also weighing pretty heavy in my thoughts right then. By the way, I think this marks the only time the movie Independence Day and Newton's discipline of limits, functions, derivatives, infinite series, et al. (using et al. a lot these days; Infinite Jest) have ever vied for brain-space, and possibly ever will. I was watching this gorgeous thundercloud, and thinking that calculus, a beautiful, sprawling discipline that revolutionized the way we look at our universe, that de-mystified infinity, that holds everything from spiraled seashells to planets' orbits in its hands, is powerless to predict the kinds of chaotic motion that was right before my eyes, in the underbelly of this storm. I don't think it was even until first-year university math classes that I actually registered that some mathematical problems have no proofs, that we do not live in a neat little mathematically consistent world with a big red bow on top. I was honestly bummed out to learn that, and probably still could be now, years later, if I was in the right mood for it. But I was not in that mood Friday afternoon. It was nothing but refreshing to look up from my human book about a human friendship based around a human discipline and see old Grandma Universe saying, "guess what, kiddo - I got more mysteries up my sleeve than any of your kind could ever even begin to fathom".

Another line of masturbatory inner ramblings occurred shortly after, inspired by the thought that myself and the thundercloud were comprised of most of the same materials, on an molecular level, and I started feeling some weird kindred-ness with it. But then my union with the universe (yes, union-verse) was painfully severed, when the bastard decided it wanted to dump rain all over me and my book, which it, to be fair, had been giving me every warning it was going to do for a long time if I had been paying any attention at all.

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