09 August 2010

Are You Ready?

ראש חודש אלול תש"ע

The sun sets on the month of Av in the year 5770 according to the Hebrew calendar.  I'm sitting in Montreal, an extraordinarily beautiful city, having arrived here by way of the Adirondacks, one of the most breathtaking areas of the earth that I've ever seen, and I'm feeling like a moron.

For more than twenty years I've lived in New York and kvetched about its messiness and stressful imposition of pace and competition and why in God's name I never loaded myself into the car and headed north is beyond me.  I really think it was sheer laziness, or to be more precise, moronic laziness--for what accounts for the deprivations I subjected myself to all these years?

The goal for the family in this last week of our summer vacation was to go to Europe, but that proved too complicated, so we opted for Montreal; and since we were committed to driving, it necessitated a drive through the Adirondacks.  Not unlike 19th century Utopian religious seekers who headed north to seek their own Garden of Eden or, as Ben Katchor so ably captured in the Jew of New York, their own Ararat, I sought redemption in the waters and the forests and muscular mountains of Northern New York and am pleased to report that "everything they say" is true.

What brought it all home for me this week was when we pulled the car over to the side of the road to read about one of the four small tributaries to the Hudson River--the Mighty Hudson--and marveled at its smallness, its pristine waters, its unrealized potential for the booming greatness it must necessarily become more than three hundred and fifty miles to the south.  One could walk across the river where we stopped, hopping from water-worn stone to stone, and as we did so, my mind turned to this night, this date on the calendar, looming as the beginning of Elul always does.  The one month mark to the start of the new year when yet again I confront my faults, my shortcomings, in all their massive, raging, overflowing murkiness.   In one month's time we Jews will mark Rosh Hashanah as a time of new beginnings but the Sages long ago instructed us to begin looking inward a month before--considering it praiseworthy to show up for the new year actually prepared to do the work of introspection and repentance.

So like I said, I'm a moron.  For more than twenty years I've sought the necessary correction to my twisted, urban perspective beside a small brook in Prospect Park; or a beach on Coney Island; or a landing by the Brooklyn Bridge; or, more recently, on a run or bike ride along the well-landscaped Hudson River Park, one of Albany's last great achievements before its recent and arguably total, final implosion.

I'm not a Hamptons guy; Florida holds no appeal; and outside the annual trek to the Delaware shore which is great swimming and family time, it's no real escape in the true sense of the word since the outlet malls and American consumerism beckon with a force equaled only by the August threat of mid-Atlantic hurricane season or the inevitable--the start of school, a new season of responsibility at work and Shul.

But the Adirondacks and its tributaries tumbling out of the mountains; its powerful yet humble geological archive of New York's historical record; and the working class ethic living a hard but simple life reminded me so much of that feeling of home that I have felt more rooted here in New York for the first time that I can ever remember.  And remember:  I write this from Montreal, connected to New York in its own way.  Hoteliers proudly flew the Maple Leaf flag in Lake George and when we spent the day at Fort Ticonderoga, we were all moved by the tenuous nature of America's beginnings.  Alliances among the French and the Indians and the British shifted in ground fertilized by blood, usually men killing other men with their bare hands or by musket but certainly seeing the whites of one another's eyes.  Where Lake Champlain and Lake George converge is where New York and Vermont meet and Canada is not far off.  And Indian nations recede in memory; British and French empires can begin to imagine their eventual dissolution; and one nation, now so seemingly wounded as it takes on responsibilities that cause it to teeter under the weight of its own values-laden obligations, is not yet born.

Montreal grabs hold of this polyglot nature in a way that is more humble than New York, I believe.  In its bilingual sensibility (not without its struggles to be sure) it represents a kind of North American narrative of this continent's origins that New York misses in its rush to be the biggest, the best, the most powerful.  Its aspirations can crush metropolitan reflection, any city's great gift to human civilization.

The wind blew mightily at Fort Ticonderoga.  N.Y. State Parks Department employees dressed as Revolutionary War era characters wove sacred narratives for the visitors to consider.  But off in the distance,  the spruce whistled the irreducible facts of life and death and the Adirondacks were pure beauty.  Somewhere in there I heard, "You don't often do what you should do" and the pain of that truth wounded me and bled me white.  It reduced me.

An annual humbling that asks, "Are you ready?"

4 comments:

Joshua Kranz said...

Really enjoyed this post Andy, in part because we just spent a few days in the Adirondacks last month, and I have made many trips to Adirondacks and Montreal during the course of my "adult" life. I do wonder if your praise for Montreal superior grasp of its historical narrative reflects your being more attuned to it as an informed tourist, visiting and engaging in a new - and undeniably beautiful and brilliant - urban center.

Thanks also for connecting the reflectiveness of a Brooklynite engaging in nature with a Jew flipping the pages of the calendar until he/she suddenly realizes that it's time to think about Back to Shul, I mean School, I mean same diff. Either way: Whoa, makes you think.

Glad you visited Fort Ticonderoga. I have to say that the Old Stone House is one of my favorite spots in Brooklyn, precisely because you are reminded that blood was shed under your feet, and you get a sense of scale and drama that does not, in fact, jump off the page. Some of the really good war movies of the era capture that feel of these soldiers, mercenary and patriot alike, trekking through woods, firing blindly and finally, inevitably, scratching and clawing for survival, with the future of North America hanging in the balance. To try to connect what that must have felt like to our latte-sipping, Facebook posting modern selves is a baffling and overwhelming task.

I did take issue with one comment you made, no doubt intended to show respect to the locals, but referring to "the working class ethic living a hard but simple life" struck me as patronizing and (we're friends so I can say this) false. We were most recently in the Adirondacks over 4th of July weekend. The town below us had fireworks on Saturday night and the town to the north had them on Sunday. It was the kind of doubling up that blows away Adar Bet.

And there were carnivals, and antique car displays, and local ice cream and kids shooting off roman candles on the side of the road and glow sticks and picnics and lakeside viewings and actually, pretty damn awesome fireworks to boot. And it was tempting to laminate the moment for its Americana-ess, until I heard one too many local folk bad-mouth Obama, or drive off in a pickup truck with a birther message or a 2nd Amendment quip or an anti-abortion credo - you're catching my drift.

If you are going to talk about Two Americas (not you per se, loyal Badger that you are) then one can just as easily refer to two New Yorks. And the hard working folk who live in the Adirondacks would rather throw back an 8 lb smallmouth bass than say something nice about Obama, or progressives in general. I have tremendous respect and appreciation for the more rural way of life, but I saw and heard too much to speak glowingly of its current populace.

Of course, rural folks living in recession-level economic times like most people in the Adirondacks stand to benefit a great deal from universal health care and a (proper) economic stimulus plan. So why do they persist in supporting the Upper 2 Percent Party? And how laudatory should our rhetoric be for their way of life when they support the Cretins of the Right? I'm sure there are liberals up that way, but most of them got off the bus in Ulster County.

Josh K said...

Really enjoyed this post Andy, in part because we just spent a few days in the Adirondacks last month, and I have made many trips to Adirondacks and Montreal during the course of my "adult" life. I do wonder if your praise for Montreal superior grasp of its historical narrative reflects your being more attuned to it as an informed tourist, visiting and engaging in a new - and undeniably beautiful and brilliant - urban center.

Thanks also for connecting the reflectiveness of a Brooklynite engaging in nature with a Jew flipping the pages of the calendar until he/she suddenly realizes that it's time to think about Back to Shul, I mean School, I mean same diff. Either way: Whoa, makes you think.

Glad you visited Fort Ticonderoga. I have to say that the Old Stone House is one of my favorite spots in Brooklyn, precisely because you are reminded that blood was shed under your feet, and you get a sense of scale and drama that does not, in fact, jump off the page. Some of the really good war movies of the era capture that feel of these soldiers, mercenary and patriot alike, trekking through woods, firing blindly and finally, inevitably, scratching and clawing for survival, with the future of North America hanging in the balance. To try to connect what that must have felt like to our latte-sipping, Facebook posting modern selves is a baffling and overwhelming task.

I did take issue with one comment you made, no doubt intended to show respect to the locals, but referring to "the working class ethic living a hard but simple life" struck me as patronizing and (we're friends so I can say this) false. We were most recently in the Adirondacks over 4th of July weekend. The town below us had fireworks on Saturday night and the town to the north had them on Sunday. It was the kind of doubling up that blows away Adar Bet.

And there were carnivals, and antique car displays, and local ice cream and kids shooting off roman candles on the side of the road and glow sticks and picnics and lakeside viewings and actually, pretty damn awesome fireworks to boot. And it was tempting to laminate the moment for its Americana-ess, until I heard one too many local folk bad-mouth Obama, or drive off in a pickup truck with a birther message or a 2nd Amendment quip or an anti-abortion credo - you're catching my drift.

If you are going to talk about Two Americas (not you per se, loyal Badger that you are) then one can just as easily refer to two New Yorks. And the hard working folk who live in the Adirondacks would rather throw back an 8 lb smallmouth bass than say something nice about Obama, or progressives in general. I have tremendous respect and appreciation for the more rural way of life, but I saw and heard too much to speak glowingly of its current populace.

Of course, rural folks living in recession-level economic times like most people in the Adirondacks stand to benefit a great deal from universal health care and a (proper) economic stimulus plan. So why do they persist in supporting the Upper 2 Percent Party? And how laudatory should our rhetoric be for their way of life when they support the Cretins of the Right? I'm sure there are liberals up that way, but most of them got off the bus in Ulster County.

Andy Bachman said...

Eliot--point well taken. What you describe about your love of New York I share (except the concrete, of course.)

Josh--It's funny. We recently traded our car in for another and at one point in the assessment, one guy in the shop said, "I was going to give you less money because of that Obama sticker on the back." And that was in the city; and upstate, we saw plenty of Obama stickers on cars in various towns. So who knows? No question, for varieties of reasons, there are stronger conservative areas outside of the city--that's an old story. And the kids noticed the homogeneity of the culture "up der," as we say in Wisco. A credit to their nascent powers of observation as well as the fact that they live in one of the most diverse areas of the world--I mean, the varieties of strollers in Park Slope is INCREDIBLE! Kidding. The bright lights of the city tend to shed necessary light on the way out ideas that flourish in less diverse, more homogeneous places, that's for sure. (Platitude ALERT!) But let's be clear. I wasn't really making a political observation as much as a general one about how the simpler life has its merits. Maybe it just needs more Democrats. By the way, you're not going to get me to go as far as you, if only because upstate New York may be the only other place besides Milwaukee where I've seen so many Harleys. God love 'em.

Marco Siegel-Acevedo said...

Gorgeous, soul-clearing country up there all right. I was in the Adirondacks only once, for a friend's wedding. We did a little grousing early in the trip about the distance (and we took the train!) only to be humbled very shortly by the passing landscape. We stayed in an ancient B&B along a tiny farm on a beautiful meadow in the shadow of the mountains. Coffee in their kitchen was --sublime. Can't quite say that for Starbucks. Thanks for the reminder. I'm due back.