Scrapbook #9: NYC

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Spent the long weekend in New York City — flights from Burlington, VT were cheap and we wanted a little vacation. We arrived late on Friday night and made our way to Shake Shack for the first meal of the weekend. Two Shake burgers, cheese fries and a black and white milkshake. It was fortifying.

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Food is obviously a huge part of a trip to NYC, but I sometimes find myself faltering at the choices. There are so many places I’ve read about and the city is so big and how much do I want to structure my time around the perfect food choices? So I pick and choose. I wanted to try Shake Shack because it seemed sacrilegious that I hadn’t yet, and I wanted to try one of the Momofuku restaurants, but in the end just settled on baked goods from Milk Bar. Andrew wanted to have BBQ, and I couldn’t argue with that. I love brunch, but didn’t want to sacrifice a morning to weekend brunch waits, and besides, I have an overwhelming fondness for bodega breakfast sandwiches. So, that’s essentially what we did, and the other spots filled themselves, which is how we also ended up having amazing pierogies in Greenpoint and take-out sushi in Central Park and a huge, greasy pizza slice somewhere on the Upper West Side. Because they fit into the day, easy, but still good.

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We rented an apartment through Airbnb in Harlem. We used Airbnb when we were in Paris and I had been charmed by the little touches of staying at a real person’s apartment. There are disadvantages too (for instance, the bathroom was weirdly covered in fake grass?), but they’re easily ignored. There’s something satisfying about pretending that, for 3 days, you have your own little home in the city you’re visiting. This apartment had high ceilings, big windows, and was conveniently sandwiched between a subway station and a delicious fish and chips place.

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It also helped that the owner had a fantastic book collection. She even had a copy of The New Yorker from 1943 that had J.D. Salinger’s A Perfect Day for Bananafish published in it. I picked up the magazine gingerly and read it, amazed to see it like this in the magazine. I also couldn’t help reading her copy of the I Ching. I’d never looked at it before and am aware at the flakiness surrounding it, but every morning I would toss three coins six times and look up the hexagrams and by the second day I threw all yangs or changing yangs, and thought that it must mean something bad, but it actually meant that I had creativity flowing through me like a mad, gushing river. Excuse my flakiness, but that’s totally what NYC felt like. I was like, inspired and shit.

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At the MOMA we saw the Cindy Sherman retrospective and a fantastic Taryn Simon exhibit. There was also an exhibit about language, and one of the installations was Dial-a-Poem. When you picked up one of the rotary phones, a random poet would recite a poem in your ear. I got Frank O’Hara, and that felt like some kind of sign too. I mean, my favourite poet! Speaking of coincidences, the next day at the High Line, Andrew and I were lounging around in the sun, and I looked up and saw a co-worker from Montreal stroll by. We had joked about seeing each other in NYC, and then we did. (If I got too into happy coincidences, the universe or whatever set me straight on Monday when our Airtrain to JFK broke down and we came this close to missing our flight.)

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One night we ended up at the waste water treatment plant in Greenpoint where there was an interactive art exhibit and an interpretive dance. Not exactly my first choice of evening activities, but it jived a little too well with Andrew’s underground photography interest to pass up. We got there too late for the dance, but we met some friends, ended up accidentally wandering into the control room of the plant until we were shooed out (not before getting out onto the roof and taking a picture). After catching up in a Polish restaurant, instead of taking the subway back, we got dropped us off at the foot of the Williamsburg Bridge, where we walked back into Manhattan.

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I’m such a sucker of night views of NYC. On our last night we ended up walking along the Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis reservoir in Central Park, and it felt surreal because everything was so quiet, and there weren’t any people around, but we could see the tall buildings in the distance, hear the water of the reservoir. We ended up somewhere behind the Met, and peeked into the huge windows. We had been there that afternoon, but at night the museum was still, dark, and even the statues looked like they were at rest.

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There’s never enough time to do everything I want to do in NYC, but we made a good go of it. I have some new books, some new clothes, these pictures, and I’m still tired. Always a good sign.

Scrapbook #8: Fragments

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Moving back to a city I know well fooled me into thinking that moving – not just the move itself, but everything that comes with it, all the emotions and saying goodbye and ending routines – would be easy because I knew what I was getting into. It’s been confusing, then, that, duh, of course it’s still hard. I hate goodbyes, I hate endings, I like routines. We have a little more than a month left in Montreal and I’m suddenly distinctly aware of time.

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I feel a little scattered these days. I do things in fragments.

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I did a little reading at Drawn & Quarterly as part of Andrew Hood’s launch for his newest collection of short stories, The Cloaca. There was also cake for Invisible’s 5th birthday. I ate a slice with my hands. Afterwards, Caro and I went a few doors down and ate burgers at Nouveau Palais, drank red wine, talked. A few days later I was in Toronto and went to that launch as well because I like The Cloaca a lot and the Invisible folks too. This time Samantha was my date, and we ate pho and it was good.

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I’m doing another reading on June 6th at Drawn & Quarterly with Angie Abdou and Mark Lavorato. The reading came up because Angie mentioned on Twitter that she was going to be in Montreal, and I asked her if she was going to read and she said, “No, but do you want to do a reading?” and then we were organizing it.Twitter can be useful. You should come. Angie is great. And even though I don’t have anything new to read, It will be my last reading as a Montrealer.

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I forgot to post a link to this article that John Shoesmith wrote for CA Magazine about accountants who are also writers. So, yeah, I really am an accountant.

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Did you know you could go surfing in Montreal? You can.

Scrapbook #6: The Philippines, part 3: Outside Manila

As much as I was fascinated by Manila, it was a relief to get out of the city for a few days and breathe some fresh air, and my family made sure to organize some trips for us. My first glimpse of a non-urban setting was when we spent a day south of Manila in Tagaytay, a popular town for city dwellers wanting a little break. It’s on the edge of Lake Taal, and we had lunch at a restaurant that overlooked a volcano jutting out in the middle of that lake. From a distance it looked too hazy and gentle to be something as destructive as a volcano.

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After eating too much (i.e. just enough), we strolled around the grounds of a church looking out onto the most incredible landscapes. The countryside is a muddy yellow-green; I’ve never seen anything precisely that shade.

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Scrapbook #5: The Philippines, part 2: Manila

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I landed in Manila at the break of dawn on a Tuesday morning and was that weird combination of delirious and adrenaline charged, too much so to really process where I’d landed and what I was seeing, and in many ways felt the same when I left less than two weeks later. I find it hard to pin down my thoughts on Manila itself. It’s a strange city. Huge, messy. What I call “Manila” is really Metro Manila, a series of cities connected by roads and highways, with no clear cut centre or downtown. The apartment I lived in for two weeks was in a glossier, Americanized part of Quezon City. We were on the 39th floor where my view was a jagged blend of various sizes of skyscrapers, multicoloured houses, slums, roads and the Pasig river, skinny and murky green.

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(Street scene)

That first morning, in the car on the way to the apartment, we hit my first traffic jam of the city, and I wasn’t awake enough to realize that it would be the first in many, many traffic jams. The traffic in Manila is a sprawling, lazy beast, an entity unto itself. It’s hard to ignore if you spend any time within the borders of the city.The traffic is indicative, I guess, of how busy and chaotic the city is. Chaotic, but seamless too – cars straddle two lanes at a time and dart in front of other vehicles whenever there’s an opening. Buses and jeepneys barrel down the streets, and then screech to a stop to let passengers off. I didn’t witness any accidents, though, just many close calls.

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(In Eastwood)

Mostly what you’ll find in Manila are extremes: extreme wealth, extreme poverty (although more weighted towards poverty) and all points in between. The area I stayed in, for instance, was as North American as could be. Eastwood is essentially a gigantic mall complex with stores like Marks & Spencer and The Body Shop, restaurants like McDonalds or TGI Friday’s. I will admit to having a really great burger at Johnny Rocket’s, an American diner replica, complete with jukebox and, mystifyingly, waiters and waitresses who broke into a dance routine every hour or so. The area was clean, safe, pretty, and I felt more like I was in California than the Philippines when I was there. It’s the kind of place where thoughtful relatives will make sure a North American will stay when they’re on their first trip to the Philippines to minimize the culture shock. Continue reading

Scrapbook #4: The Philippines, part 1: Some photos

I’m back in Canada after two weeks in Philippines. I have so many things to write about, but I’m jet lagged, still processing and looking ahead to a busy week back. If I don’t have time to pop in before the weekend, for those of you in Montreal, Andrew has an exhibit at the DHC as part of Nuit Blanche on Saturday and you should come by to see it.

Until later, here’s a selection of photos I took while I was away. There are more to come, along with details and context, but I’ll start with these highlights.

Hello again.

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Scrapbook #3: Mid-winter trip.

My parents moved to Canada in the seventies as part of a big wave of immigrants that decided to establish new lives in a different, welcoming country. They met and married in Toronto, had me, and remained. My father came from Greece, and I’ve been fortunate to visit the country often (and once for a long time). My mother, on the other hand, is from the Philippines, where I’ve never been. My mother hadn’t gone back in over 15 years herself, and last spring when she started talking about taking a trip I knew I had to go with her. I wanted to see the country where she grew up; I wanted to meet the other half of my family.

A trip to the Philippines is harder to coordinate than one to Greece, but we eventually got our schedules sorted out, and on Christmas Day I booked myself a ticket for a 20+ hour journey from Montreal to Vancouver and then Vancouver to Manila. I was excited, but this excitement promptly got swallowed up by day to day life. I worked a lot. I tried to write. We had houseguests and did typical Montreal things involving poutine and skating.

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And now the trip is around the corner: I leave on Saturday. I arrive in Manila on Monday morning, where I’ll meet my mother, who has been there for a week and a half already. The weather will be very different from the snow and cold here in Canada, and I’m looking forward to this unexpected winter break. But other than the temperature shift, I have no idea what to expect. Either way, I’ll be arming myself with a camera, a notebook and my laptop. The trip is relatively short for such a long distance (two weeks), but I have a feeling it will be the kind that inspires many words, photos, feelings.

I’ll keep you posted. See you in a few weeks.

Scrapbook #2: Time

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Too many consecutive late nights at the office over the past two weeks has made me preoccupied with time. Namely, not having time to write. How did people do it, I wondered: work and write? It was too hard to do it all! It wasn’t just hard; it was impossible.

(I know, cue tiny violins.)

A good night’s rest and a Saturday afternoon doing lovely weekend-y things has given me perspective. I’ve always done the working and writing thing; it’s something I can do. It’s just a matter of getting back into the habit again. Which means: back to Sundays at the kitchen table, back to printing pages out and reading them over at the foodcourt at lunch, back to typing on my laptop in bed on weekday nights, even just a little bit. Back to remembering that writing isn’t such a precious, precarious activity. Write like a motherfucker.

And I’ve found time to enjoy other things these days. Loudon Wainwright III’s Album I, the first season of Downton Abbey, Shame, Patrick DeWitt’s The Sisters Brothers. Today I saw photos from Taryn Simon’s series, An American Index of the Hidden and Unfamiliar. It’s so great: “an inventory of what lies hidden and out-of-view within the borders of the United States” and includes portraits of inbred tigers, a braile version of Playboy, sunken nuclear waste and more. (If you don’t trust my opinion, maybe Salman Rushdie will convince you?) If you live in Montreal, you can see these photos for free at the DHC.

So there is time. It’s just a matter of organizing it.

Scrapbook #1: Marginalia.

I’m a sucker for marginalia, notes, scraps. I like reading acknowledgements, bibliographies, lists. I’ve always enjoyed the Culture Diary series at The Paris Review where writers chronicle various things consumed over a specific time frame. I try to keep records of this stuff myself because it’s helpful when I’m writing and in need of examples of whatever mood I want to conjure, but also because it’s a way to remember my own days – a diary by association. Then I realized I was kind of doing that with these scrapbook entries. So here’s to another year of them. In Jeanette Winterson’s memoir, Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?, she says, I have noticed that doing the sensible thing is only a good idea when the decision is quite small. For the life-changing things, you must risk it. Good advice, Winterson. I’ll remind myself of this in 2012.

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The first book I read in 2012 was I Married You For Happiness by Lily Tuck, over the course of New Year’s Day, and it was beautiful and sad. On New Year’s Eve we watched Hannah and her Sisters and also fireworks, which were across the city but the biggest, flashiest explosions could be seen from our balcony.

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A set of 6 plates bought for $18 from an antique store in Burlington, Vermont, just the right size, with perfect scalloped edges and a pretty green design.

Went to the Musee d’Art Contemporain de Montreal to see the Quebec Triennial and was reminded of how modern art can make me cranky, bored, snarky and ecstatic within a short period of time. It’s exhausting. My favourite exhibit was called LOVELAND by Charles Stankievech, a video of a giant purple cloud of smoke in a big white room.

As of this afternoon: 3,519 draftiest of first drafty words of a new novel.