Still Life

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A moment of silence at the end of my street in Costa Rica.

I am by no means a professional photographer. Sure, I have some idea of the basics when it comes to composing a quality shot, but for the most part my portfolio consists of a couple lucky shots taken while on vacation. A big part of composing a quality photo has to do with the subject—you can always pick out a professional because they know how to manipulate lighting and positioning to make even the most mundane subjects stand out. But for the amateurs like me, sometimes our best photos are more because of the location.

On a recent trip to Costa Rica, I was overcome with inspiration—by just stepping outside of my hotel room I would catch these moments of pure beauty, and would do my best to capture it in a shot. Some moments would slip by—the country is known for its wildlife, so many of my photos cover the blurry movement of a money or the tail of an iguana before it slips back into its hiding place. But, on occasion, I managed to capture a truly one-of-a-kind shot that I wanted to show off.

The rise of social media, specifically photo sharing, has become quite the phenomenon in recent years—our selfies have become a means of placing us in the moment and sharing our joyous occasions with others. For some, seeing photo after photo of an occasion may become a nuisance, but for me, I welcome these pictures. I love seeing people share pictures from their vacations, snapshots of a family event, or even just a funny moment they had on an afternoon walk. The camera was invented to supplement our memories—it gives us the ability to preserve moments in our lives, good and bad, and we should share that with others.

I’ve always loved snapping pictures. Behind each picture there is always a story. To this day, I still take pride in a shot I took on a hiking trail in Italy. For the unknowing viewer, it’s just a sign pointing to a cliffside town. But to me, the photo is a memory of an incredible weekend, where I broke from my comfort zone for the first time and fell in love with that small village on the coast.

Candid shots are another favorite for me. Sure, posing for photos is great, but to capture humans in their most comfortable state, when they are truly happy, or contemplative, or scared, those are the moments that can tell so much of the story without saying a word.

That’s why I try to capture the still moments, the moments that spark memories, that remind us of the life we’ve already lived. My photos may not be award winning, but for me, they are worth more than any souvenir I’ve paid for. They are the physical proof of a life well lived, and as I grow older, I appreciate the reminder of those little moments when I was quick enough to pull my camera out and snap a photo.

Sculpture Censors

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Classical nudes were covered by large wooden boxes in preparation for Iran’s President’s visit to Rome.

I always find it fascinating when the media panics over the border between art and erotica. It’s not a new concept—some critics reject artworks out of fear that it may offend members of the public, whether based on religion, culture, personal comfort or other. Art history has seen its ups and downs—the classic nude was the staple of the cultural expression of ancient Greece and Rome, but was lost for centuries as new values (ahem, Christianity) came into play. Even after the revival of the classic nude, there were moments when the naked body was still seen as shameful or offensive (the fig leaf, a common symbol of censorship, has become an ongoing debate—some historians still see the added leaves to cover the genitals of classical art, specifically in the Vatican, as vandalism to the original piece, while others now argue that those added leaves are a part of history). Whatever the case, censorship in art has always been a touchy debate.

In the most recent news of art cover ups, an unnamed official at Rome’s Capitoline Museum actually ordered to hide some of the more ‘obscene’ nude statues in the museum with large white boxes—completely blocking any view of the statue. What was the reason: the recent visit to Rome by Iranian President Hassan Rouhani had this official nervous about offending him. And what is more baffling, is that this order wasn’t given by Italy’s Culture Minister Dario Franceschini or Italy’s Prime Minister, Matteo Renzi.

It’s a strange concept for me to understand—yes, I can admit that there are certain works of art that could be offensive (one that comes to mind is Egon Schiele, whose sexual figures border that line between sexual art vs. erotica)—but for the classical nude sculpture that typically graces Italy’s museums, I see no need to cover that up. Perhaps this official was taking the ‘better safe than sorry approach,’ but for a country that is so proud of their contributions to the art world, you would expect them to want to show off their collections, not hide them.

In Reuters’ report on this news, they cited Rome’s newspaper La Repubblica, calling out the decision, saying: “Covering those nudes … meant covering ourselves. Was it worth it, in order not to offend the Iranian president, to offend ourselves?” It’s a valid point, for sure, but in a world of continuous PC culture and fragile political ties, maybe hiding a few sculptures was worth avoiding the potential political backlash. Just a thought.

Read more about the visit here.

It’s Quiet Uptown

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A rainy Sunday outing to the Hamilton Grange National Memorial left me a little too excited.

In the second act of Lin Manuel Miranda’s Revolutionary (ha ha ha) musical, ‘Hamilton,’ the title character and his wife, grieving from the loss of their son, move to uptown Manhattan to learn to deal with their pain. The song itself, “It’s Quiet Uptown,” gives us a snapshot of this grief, set to the backdrop of Manhattan in the early 1800s, when everything north of Canal Street was still farmland.

It’s strange to picture Manhattan being anything but skyscrapers and brownstones, yet beneath the concrete of the city’s present lies hints to its past—one most relevant in the Hamilton Grange National Memorial, the preserved home of our favorite founding father, Alexander Hamilton.

This house, located now on the northern edge of St. Nicolas Park at 141st Street in Hamilton Heights, is the only home Hamilton owned during his lifetime. It was designed by architect John McComb Jr. and completed in 1802, just two years before Hamilton died in a duel against then Vice President, Aaron Burr.

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A statue of Alexander Hamilton stands at the site of the second location for his home.

Over the last 200 plus years, the historic memorial has moved twice, once in 1889 when it was acquired by nearby St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, who moved the house next to the church on Convent Ave. The house was moved a second time in 2008 to its current location, where historic preservationists and the U.S. National Parks Service restored the home based on original design blueprints. It now stands as a museum commemorating the life and legacy of Hamilton.

I’ve already written about my love (obsession?) for Manuel’s musical depiction of Hamilton’s story, so I won’t repeat myself. But what really brought me up to the Grange this past weekend was a craving for a little exploration. My timing was a little too perfect—Hamilton’s birthday is today (January 11), and because of the rain yesterday, the usual crowds that have flocked to the memorial since the show’s success all decided to stay indoors for the day, leaving me with a chance to have a private, intimate experience with the former home of my historic crush.

In terms of historic preservation and replication, the Hamilton Grange National Memorial transports you right back to the 1800s, when farmland would surround the home, and the commute to downtown took an hour and half by horse and carriage (today, you can get to the Financial District in roughly the same time, just by subway instead of carriage). Original pieces once owned by Hamilton mingle with replicas—Philip Hamilton’s original piano, where he and his younger sister, Angelica, would play duets together still rests in the sitting room, while Alexander’s office captures that energy you would expect from a man who played such a vital role in the creation of our country.

Still, the most interesting part of the tour is the story of moving this building. As it was handed over to the care of the National Parks Service, they carefully planned to raise the entire house in one piece over the church, and then onto the hill. That alone, is terrifying to execute—one slip and you could lose this historic landmark. And yet, with careful maneuvering, and very strong equipment, the move was successful and we now have the ability to experience a piece of history (and maybe drop a few song lyrics during the guided tour).

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Alexander Hamilton was born on January 11, 1789. To celebrate, the National Parks Service set out a card to sign at the Hamilton Grange National Memorial.

For my fellow urban hikers, this is a great way to spend a day—Hamilton Heights in itself is a gorgeous area, with plenty of sights to see. I’d suggest starting at the Grange and poking around there first, then moving on to some simple wandering around the neighborhood until you stumble upon a cute café for lunch.

And for my fellow Hamilton Heads—indulge yourself in an hour of historic obsessing over the fact that you are standing on the same foundation where that young, scrappy, and hungry man once lived.

Progress at the Gardner Museum?

Another push was made in finding the lost paintings. I’m talking, of course, about the $500 million worth of stolen paintings from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston, MA—you know, that famously unsolved art theft from 1990.

A little recap for those who don’t know the story (meaning you’re not from Massachusetts and/or don’t obsess over stories about art crimes): during the early morning of March 18, 1990, two men dressed as Boston police officers entered the security entrance of the museum, tied up the security guards, and stole 13 works of art including three Rembrandts, five Degas, Manet’s Chez Torini and Vermeer’s The Concert (I should note that while Vermeer is one of Europe’s most famous and praised painters, he only produced 34 known paintings in his lifetime, making his work particularly rare). The heist has remained unsolved even today, and has inspired numerous books (fiction and non-fiction), articles, documentaries and other films centered on the investigation. Everyone has his or her own theories on the heist at this point, and if you’re like me, your world kind of stops every time you see ‘Gardner Museum’ pop up in news headlines.

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The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum leaves the empty frames of its stolen paintings in the galleries—a reminder of the 1990 theft.

Even though we haven’t actually found the paintings yet, the story resurfaces every few months when the FBI has updates. Today, The Boston Globe announced that they believe that aging mobster Robert Gentile knows the location of the paintings. The article says that while he denies it, Gentile had attempted to sell the paintings for $500,000 a piece to an undercover FBI agent, however the deal was not completed because Gentile was indicted on charges of selling a gun to a convicted felon. The Globe stated that Gentile’s connection to the paintings resurfaced during a hearing in court this week over gun charges against him.

It seems that to make this information public would mean that the FBI had a good handle on everything, but knowing how traditional reporting works, I’m wondering if the mere mention of the Gardner Heist during Gentile’s hearing in court led The Boston Globe to reopen all of their old information—kind of a ‘Hey, it’s been 26 years, but we haven’t lost hope yet!” It makes sense—the story in itself is fascinating, and there are so many people who have a personal attachment to seeing the mystery finally solved.

I, personally, still think that Boston’s Whitey Bulger was somehow involved. The mystery seemed to have stalled for years until Bulger was captured in 2011 after disappearing 16 years before (It’s at this moment that I will openly admit my obsession to Boston crime stories). Think about it though—Bulger was the biggest, most feared mobster in Boston. Then he disappears in 1995—five years after the Gardener Heist! This is all speculation, of course, but it wouldn’t surprise me if Bulger were connected in some way. Maybe he wasn’t the mastermind behind the theft, but I’m sure he knew who was, and when he was finally captured, he could easily offer up that information in a deal in court. Drop a few charges in exchange for the names of those currently in possession of the artwork.

Really what this all comes down to is my hope to one day see those paintings. In 1990, I had no idea who Vermeer or Rembrandt were. But years of studying and gawking at these masters’ work, along with my dedication to reading every bit of literature surrounding the theft, has only made me desperate to see an end to this story—I would love nothing more than to learn where these paintings have hid for the last 26 years, and to see them safely returned to the empty frames that still haunt the Gardner Museum’s galleries.

Bridges

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Astoria, NY’s HellGate Bridge

I’m still waking up from the long holiday break, so coming up with a topic worth writing about took a little more effort. The world has remained quiet for the last few days—we all had to nurse our post-NYE celebration hangovers, and then slowly revive ourselves back to life in time to kick start our resolutions (I, personally, will continue my annual tradition of being a cliché and visit the gym for a month before dropping back into a life of lounging and take out).

 

Work has also been slow today, which has given me a chance to really dive into one of my passions—reading obscure articles on Twitter. So far, the winner of stupid Internet trends is a video of a NYC subway rat dragging a dead rat through the subways (you’re welcome), but it was actually this short article on Curbed.com about China’s obsession with building scary bridges that really caught my attention.

Apparently, China’s longest all glass bridge wasn’t enough of a thrill, so designers decided to create a tire and rope bridge suspended between 12 to 30 feet (depending on the section) above tea fields in China’s Xuan’en County. Essentially, this is a high school gym class challenge course on steroids, and from the pictures, it doesn’t look like you get a harness, so hold on tight.

The vertigo-prone side of me finds this bridge terrifying—I can barely look over a railing without getting dizzy. But for the adventurer in me, this looks like a perfect way to get my adrenaline pumping. You see, I love that thrill of taking a chance, of putting myself in a situation that may scare me.

I love bridges. In college, we had the Mount Hope Bridge looming over our campus, and during my four years that became my own symbol of hope. I find so much comfort with bridges—standing at the water’s edge in Astoria Park near my home, I can stare out at New York City and its network of bridges. I’ve made an effort to cross most of them by foot (at least the ones I can cross), and it’s rare for my Instagram to go a month without a carefully-filtered photo of these metal monsters. Because for me, bridges are a sign of better things to come.

I mentioned in my last post about how 2016 has become a year of change for me. Change is scary—you’re crossing into unknown territory and hoping that the outcome will work out for the best. But that initial journey is scary, much like crossing that Chinese rope bridge. For me, I don’t know what to expect, but I have to trust that I will be able to help myself through the struggle—I don’t have a harness, and there are holes in the bridge that will make my journey dangerous. But on the other side, there is safe ground, there is comfort, and when I look back, I will be glad I took the journey. It will be a story I can tell for ages.

I hope that 2016 brings the same joys, moments of growth and struggle, and ultimately, happiness to you all. Let us all take a moment to really think about what it is we want out of this year—New Years Resolutions may appear cliché, but they are also our chance to restart.

Saying ‘Yes Please’ to 2016

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The other day, a friend and I discussed the habits we all have when we go through our ‘dark days’—those little life moments when your world seem to collapse around you, forcing you to find some sort of comfort in the chaos. These habits are sparked from loss most times—the loss of a friend, of a relationship, of a loved one—whatever the case may be, it forces you to learn to live without that comfort. It forces you to cope with change.

The approaching new year always puts me into a mood—I think about my past year, the ups and downs I faced, and what changes I hope to see in future. I could really have these reflections at any time, but the marathon of the holidays always leaves me exhausted, and ready to create some sort of structure in my life after so much chaos.

On top of my usual reflections, 2015 for me wrapped up with some dramatic changes, both very good and very bad. Over the last few weeks, I’ve managed to take the time to process most of my thoughts, and the best way to describe my situation is this—I’m going through a period of transition. I’m not always the type of person who deals with change well, so to cope with this, I turned to a few of my routine habits that help me find a bit of comfort in my life.

I start with a playlist of music that brings me back to happier times—Matchbox Twenty (the only band my family ever agreed on during long car rides growing up), Mumford and Sons (my obsession during the first few months living in New York City), Ed Sheeran (he brought me out of ‘dark days’ 2013 when my apartment was infested with bed bugs), and Sting (just because). Using this as my backbone, I’m able to reflect on my thoughts with a clearer perspective.

Outside of the safety of my headphones though, I’ve found a solid cocktail solution of three things that always make me feel better. First, I try to set aside one day a week for me—the activity changes week to week, but it gives me a chance to slow down and get out of my head. Usually I’ll try a yoga class, or if it’s warm, I’ll walk up to the park after work and sit in the shade with a book.

Second, I turn to my favorite TV show (Parks and Recreation) and binge through the entire thing again. Mike Schur and Amy Poehler were able to create this perfect fictional world that is hilarious, welcoming, supportive, and loving, and when reality seems to be too much for me, I’m always glad I can escape to Pawnee for a few hours. And finally, I’ve found a very recent comfort—rereading Amy Poehler’s book, Yes Please.

I’m a comedy nerd for sure—biographies and interviews with my favorite comedians are pretty much my crack. But unlike books that focus on the person’s career, Poehler’s book is much more open and raw. She still talks about her rise to stardom, but in between her tales of improv and her years on SNL, Poehler gives us an inside look at her daily life. She talks about her highs and her lows, and while other books by my comedy heroes make me want to drop everything and start writing jokes, Yes Please inspires me to try to make the best of the life I have now. She talks about her divorce, and how she dealt with that, and gives you that little reminder that even the most famous celebrities are venerable.

This time, the chapter that struck me most was about Poehler’s trip to Haiti. She was still in the midst of her divorce, and in an effort to escape from everything, she decided to accompany a friend to the country for some humanitarian work. Traveling to Haiti is not the same as traveling to some Caribbean island to relax though—you don’t go there to vacation, you go there to meet the people, to try to help them, and to gain some perspective.

As you read about her trip, you only get a snapshot of her thoughts. She reminds us that even when you separate yourself from everything, your reality will still haunt you, but every day you can find moments that can center you, that can help bring you out of those dark days. It was in this description that I cam across this line, describing the children she met at the orphanage:

“Most of these children were living in the moment. Thinking about the future was a luxury.”

It makes you pause for a moment when you think about this. The future is a luxury. Highlight on luxury. On any given day, I can guarantee 90 percent of it for me includes thinking about my future. I’m obsessed with planning—I make at minimum five lists a day. I map out my exercise routines, my meal plans, how much money I expect to spend in the week, how much money I need to save over the next year, where I want to be in a year, in five years, in ten years. I actually map out what days I will do my laundry over a whole month (I have a system. It makes so much more sense in my head, I promise.). It’s no wonder I’m exhausted all the time—my mind is always worrying about tomorrow.

I would never describe this as a luxury though, but when you are reminded that there are people all over the world who don’t know if they will make it into the next year, it really hits you. We take so much for granted, we stress so much over our futures that we forget to enjoy the moment. I am constantly trying to remind myself of this, especially in times when my present isn’t exactly going the way I want it to.

That’s why we constantly need to remind ourselves of the fortunes we have in our lives. It’s so important to be present, and to be thankful for all that we have.

Why My Facebook Went French

On Friday, November 13, terrorists struck Paris in what was the deadliest attack on the country’s soil since World War II. Explosions were reported across the city, shootings in a restaurant, a hostage situation at a concert hall. The attack left more than 120 people dead, with another 400+ wounded.

Over the past week, we’ve read up on every development—who organized these attacks, the retaliation from the French government, responses from other countries, and most importantly, the stories of hope that comes from the tragedy. You see, in the wake of every terror attack, we have to rely on each other to move forward. In Paris, direct victims will feel the effects for the rest of their lives. Residents, tourists, businesses, etc. in the city will see immediate regulations put in place to prevent future attacks, and the rest of the world will be on high alert, even if for just a short time. We’re still figuring out how to deal with this—it’s an ongoing battle.

For those of us who were not in Paris, who had to watch this attack unfold from our TVs, and we want to do something to help, if for nothing more than to show the victims that they are not alone. Some may donate money, some may pray, and for the millions of users on social media, we tend to turn to the simplest task that can still make an impact—we change our profile picture.

The Paris attacks are not the first time this has happened—we tend to use this tactic every time tragedy strikes. The colors and design change each time, but the message is always the same—we are thinking of the victims, we understand what happened, and that we stand with them. It’s the same reason we wear yellow ribbons—to silently remind the world that we are thinking of the troops fighting overseas. These little posts, they are symbols that offer some comfort to those who were directly affected. They remind us that we are together in this.

Since the Paris attacks, my Facebook page has turned into a sea of red, white and blue. Among the twitter of news headlines, funny cat videos, and Star Wars trailers, we’ve created a unifying reminder that as our lives move on, we are still thinking of those affected by the terrorist attacks. Days will pass, and slowly the social media site will go back to the way it was, exactly as the real world grows and moves on from each tragedy. But for those few days, our pictures act as a symbol that shows we are there, and that we feel their sadness. It’s our gesture to comfort those facing the unimaginable, and if it makes one person feel a little better, then I will be satisfied.

Unfortunately, not everyone has the same idea. Countering the posts of hope and love, I’ve seen so many people feeling compelled to criticize the profile picture change. They take a tragedy and, in an attempt to display their wider social view (?) or maybe their negative look at the world (?), and turn the argument into the weight of these pictures. They make the tragedy about them, showing how their self-righteous decision to NOT change their picture will have a better impact on the world. They could not be more wrong.

Some make fun of the concept, saying that it’s pointless to change your picture because it will not make a difference. But let me remind you, these pictures are meant to inspire and replenish hope to those in need; it’s just one little step in a bigger structure to make the world a better place. By pouring your negativity into that, you’re not helping. You’re just trying to tear our structure down.

Others may argue that instead of changing your picture, you should donate money. I agree that donations are appreciated, but sometimes people are in situations where they can’t make a donation. Or maybe they choose not to. But these people, the ones bitching about the pictures, are just looking for the pat on the back—it’s not enough that they donate money, but they need to be acknowledged as a good person for doing that. They’re missing the point—this isn’t about you.

Now yes, it may be a bit hypocritical of me to write about this, but the more complaining I see online, the sadder I feel. There is so much negativity in our world that it gives me anxiety—I shouldn’t feel guilty for changing my picture. I shouldn’t feel angry when I read these opinions. If I am feeling this way, I’m sure your negativity is not making anyone else feel better, especially those who are trying to piece back their life in Paris.

I chose to change my profile picture to the red, white and blue French flag to show my support, to let the world know that Paris was on my mind. If it makes one person smile, then it will be worth it.